I wrote this piece for my university’s paper The Collegian. It highlights the emotional experience of an LGBT individual attending a middle-of-the-road Christian school. My feelings on this topic are intense and invested, and this paper has seen its fair share of softening and rearticulation. I share it here so that those who may not live near the WWU campus will have easier access to it.
In my experience, college is a time when many students are first beginning to figure out their identity. Learning who you are can be a challenging process, and it’s a time when many young adults need support and mentorship from those around them. Being LGBT adds a new dimension to this experience, and can be extremely isolating. For many, the knowledge of being LGBT comes before they are able to talk about it with anyone or find any role models to look up to. Not having the proper resources can be damaging, especially at the pivotal adolescent and young adult stage.
According to the National Alliance for Mental Illness, LGBT individuals are more than three times more likely to experience a mental health condition such as depression or anxiety. The experience of coming out has also been documented to lead to PTSD, thoughts of suicide, and substance abuse. The mental distress results from not having an environment where one feels safe to express their identity, as well as not having adequate resources. Young adults who identify as LGBT need quality support not only from their peers, but also from their superiors.
Because of the policies that address LGBT issues at WWU on a case-by-case basis, many LGBT individuals at Walla Walla do not feel safe or represented. It may be confusing about what it means for WWU to be a physically and an emotionally safe place for minority groups, and why it is necessary. Consider this: in recent years, we have had several incidents of LGBT students being mistreated and receiving physical threats. In those situations, because WWU policy can be unclear or difficult to understand in regards to LGBT support, the students involved are afraid to seek help and do not feel safe in disclosing what is happening to them.
In approaching this article, I interviewed six LGBT individuals who are currently or have previously attended or worked for WWU to find out what their experience has been like. The recurring theme throughout all the interviews has been the need to be cautious about who you opened up to, as many students and staff members are not adequately prepared to be supportive and safe.
One student, who spent more than six years at WWU, stated that they had difficulty in finding a staff or faculty member who they could talk to without fear of rejection. Several of the people I talked with remarked that they noticed a negative difference in the way they were treated by some staff and faculty members when they opened up to them. This is unfortunate, but because the university has few policies to support LGBT individuals, it is challenging for students to speak up and confront this sort of prejudice.
The lack of policy and stance from the university also affects non-LGBT students. One faculty member remarked that she has had students in her classrooms use the term gay in a derogatory way. Upon confronting these students, she had to explain to them why using the term gay in such a manner was hurtful and damaging to those who identified as LGBT. These students had not had to think about the meaning of their words, and university leadership and proper training in spaces such as JumpStart or in the dorms could have avoided the incident altogether.
One problem that many LGBT students face at WWU is finding peers who are also LGBT. WWU makes it very challenging for LGBT support groups to meet up and put on events. Many non-religious and some religious schools often have an official group called a GSA, or Gay-Straight Alliance. At WWU, we have a group called SFE, or Students for Equality. This group has not been able to become an official club, despite several attempts in the past to receive official recognition from the university. While this group still operates and puts on events, not being official makes it hard to find spaces to host meetings as well as advertise.
In one case, the school chose to approve a poster for an LGBT-oriented event but chose not to stamp the posters because they wanted individual staff members to still be able to take down posters if they were uncomfortable. This actively prioritizes the comfort of staff and faculty over the young adults on campus who desperately need support and community. In an event I planned myself, the event’s posters were taken down after miscommunication about prior event approval. When I asked what was wrong, I was told that some faculty feared the film we were to be showing was pornographic in nature and would cause miscommunication. The film is called Pride (2014), and I encourage you to watch it and find where the pornographic material is. You may be disappointed.
Several years ago, ASWWU had a program called Pods that allowed any sizable group of students who met regularly for one purpose to receive funding from ASWWU. This allowed many diverse interest groups to form on campus, one of which was an LGBT discussion group. When some leaders learned that there was an active LGBT Pod, the ASWWU Social VP for the year was pressured by a faculty member to get rid of that specific group. However, the Social VP refused. For unrelated reasons the Pods program was ended soon after.
The problem of protection and support extends also to staff and faculty. WWU does employ LGBT individuals, but those individuals are not able to openly express their sexual orientation. One former staff member stated that working at WWU means prioritizing a career over having a family. “At another school—like the CC or Whitman—you go home and that’s your life. But working for the university, that becomes everything. It becomes every part of your life.” It is important to recognize that WWU is unique from other public schools since it is a religious institution. As such, the university wants to ensure that their employees uphold the Adventist perspective in every aspect of their life. Thus, the experience of working at WWU as an LGBT individual could mean prioritizing work over personal life, which I think could potentially open doors for mental health concerns. Having a fulfilled personal life should not be restricted to heterosexual individuals. The current treatment of LGBT individuals by many SDA employers harkens back to the days of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell.
I understand that hearing these incidents of prejudice can be hurtful and embarrassing to those who are connected with WWU. My goal is not to shame anyone into “doing better” or to attack any specific group. I simply want to show the pain experienced by many students due to the university’s lack of policy and support. While it can be hard to hear these things, it is important to recognize that the shame and fear experienced by the students directly affected by these events is much greater, and needs to be urgently addressed.
I believe that the way LGBT students are treated and responded to at WWU teaches them to be sheepish and to live in fear of their own identity. It is in the university’s interest to create safe places for these students so that we can openly discuss our experiences and begin forming a community of allies and LGBT individuals. Everyone benefits from diversity, and this will not only show support to our LGBT students, but unite and strengthen the campus as a whole.
If you are a student at WWU and need help finding resources for yourself or another LGBT individual, please feel free to email me at firstname.lastname@example.org or contact the WWU Students for Equality group at email@example.com.