Recalling dirty looks on campus and harassment in dorms, Northwestern College’s lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender students said they are “persecuted” at the school. In response, NW’s unofficial student-run LGBT advocacy group has expanded its efforts to raise awareness of perceived LGBT discrimination on campus.
“Everyone should have a place where they feel safe and free to be who they are and not feel judged or persecuted, and we want to be that for anyone who needs us,” said senior Keely Wright, executive administrator of LEAP, an organization for LGBT-affirming students that is unaffiliated with NW.
Taking its name from the acronym “Love, Education, Acceptance, Pride,” the group clashes with NW’s official position that homosexuality is immoral on religious grounds. It’s a view the college holds as part of its affiliation with the Reformed Church in America.
Although NW denounces homosexual relationships, the administration does acknowledge homosexuality as a genuine sexual identity.
“We affirm gay and lesbian students’ understandings of who they are and how they identify themselves, but we don’t affirm expression of that in a relationship,” said Dean of Students John Brogan. “The question becomes, can we still be a welcoming, supportive community without taking that final step of affirming gay and lesbian students’ sexual desires?”
Brogan said the policy is intended to provide a safe environment for LGBT students while also satisfying the college’s generally conservative constituents.
LEAP members, on the other hand, said they believe the school’s stance has unintentionally bolstered negative treatment of LGBT students on campus. Sophomore Isaac “Fargo” Gross, a gay student and LEAP member, said he experienced harassment on campus because of his sexuality.
“If your goal is to convince people that you’re right, hating them is not going to do anything,” Gross said. “Christians get persecuted all the time, so why would you do that to another group of people?”
Coming out experiences at NW
Gross first experienced rejection at NW for his sexuality when he came out in January after hiding it the first semester of his freshman year.
“[Living in the closet] was really constricting,” Gross said. “It was very wearing emotionally. I would say that was the worst part. I was emotionally drained all the time.”
Although coming out gave Gross inner relief, it also brought him new troubles. When news of his sexuality spread, Gross faced exclusion and harassment. Gross said he was the target of indirect verbal abuse from other students in his dorm.
“Not only as a Christian but just as a human being, to stand by and let others treat people that way, that’s never OK,” Wright said. “Things do need to change, and this place isn’t exempt from that rule.”
Most LGBT mistreatment at NW, however, has taken a less targeted form than what Gross experienced. Brielle Giesen, a former NW student who transferred after the spring 2012 semester, left school partially because of a general attitude on campus that she said was unfriendly toward LGBTs.
“I just felt uncomfortable surrounded by people who, even though they didn’t say it out loud, thought I shouldn’t have been there,” Giesen said. “There was a lot of judging and dirty looks, but that was to be expected.”
Although Giesen’s close friends at NW accepted her as a lesbian, she said the general campus community tried to sweep her sexuality under the rug.
“It’s just that people wouldn’t acknowledge it,” Giesen said. “If people would have just acknowledged it, that would have helped.”
Now a junior at Minnesota State University Mankato, Giesen said NW needs greater awareness of the LGBT presence on campus.
“There needs to be more recognition of the LGBT community [at NW],” Giesen said. “A lot of students at NW don’t even know it exists. LGBT students are there just like everyone else.”
Brogan said the underground nature of NW’s LGBT community might have resulted from the school’s predominantly conservative student body.
“We have many students who come from a restrictive view [of homosexuality], and if we’re not helping them to understand why we allow homosexual students to come here, maybe our policy does have the potential to create a hostile environment,” Brogan said.
The story behind LEAP
Fostering acceptance of NW’s LGBT community has been LEAP’s goal since its inception in 2009. Founded by 2011 NW alum Greta Floding, the group initially hoped for sponsorship from NW’s Spiritual Formation Center. When the Center’s leaders disagreed with the idea, Floding launched the group, anyway, as an unaffiliated body.
In 2011, the group adopted its makeshift name, “The Gay Support Group” (GSG). After leadership transferred to Wright, the group received its current, permanent name in spring 2012. LEAP’s new name was designed to be inclusive of not only gays but also lesbians, bisexuals and other sexual minorities.
With the name change, LEAP members revisited the possibility of affiliation with NW. After talks with Brogan, though, the group decided official status wasn’t in its best interests. As a NW-endorsed student organization, LEAP would be required to change its stance on homosexuality to reflect that of NW.
“If we were an official campus group, we would have to get rid of the ‘P’ in our name because ‘P’ stands for ‘pride,’” Wright said. “Then we wouldn’t be LEAP anymore, unless we came up with something else for ‘P,’ like ‘Purgatory,’ maybe.”
Preferring autonomy of their beliefs, the group members decided not to apply for official recognition.
“We don’t see [homosexuality] as a sin, and we don’t want to cross that line where we have to change that,” Wright said. “The place where we can be the most free, and the most true to ourselves, is outside NW.”
As an unaffiliated organization, LEAP has forgone the privileges, such as hanging posters on campus and using NW equipment, given to official student groups. Although LEAP members expressed frustration over the restrictions, they said they intend to honor the stipulations in order to maintain good relations with NW.
“We don’t want to infringe on the stance of the college or step on anyone’s toes,” Wright said. “We’d like to keep our relationship with the administration a friendly, diplomatic one. We don’t want to push buttons.”
However, LEAP has been known to ruffle feathers in the local community. In March 2011, the group’s first public event, a screening of a documentary supporting nontraditional Christian views on homosexuality, drew in a crowd of outraged locals.
“It didn’t go the way we had hoped,” Wright said. “We’re trying to spread awareness and hopefully achieve greater communication and understanding between us and our community. We don’t want to be segregated. We’re always trying to bridge that gap, to get rid of the ‘us’ and ‘them.’”
LEAP’s more recent events, though, have provoked less resistance. In a session for NW’s 2012 Day of Learning in Community last February, the group presented a dramatization of real letters concerning bullying and abuse.
The group’s most successful event so far was an LGBT open-mic night last April called Late Night Lit Night.
How to get involved with LEAP
LEAP members said they have formed a close-knit group that meets weekly for both casual socializing and serious discussion.
“We instantly have a connection because we have a very, very big thing in common,” Gross said.
In addition to LGBT students, LEAP also comprises heterosexual students. Meetings typically have approximately 10 members in attendance.
“Especially in this conservative community, you feel like no one will support you,” Gross said. “You feel alone, and LEAP gives you a place to come where you know that everyone in that room is for you as a person and loves you, and you won’t ever have to question that.”
Further information about LEAP is available on the group’s website at leapnwc.webs.com. For privacy reasons, the meeting schedule is confidential. Prospective members are invited to contact Wright at email@example.com.
“No matter where you are on your journey — if you’re not sure about yourself, or if you are sure but you’re nervous about it, or if you don’t know where you stand — we’re here for you 100 percent,” Wright said.
The public is invited to attend LEAP’s open house at 7 p.m. on Dec. 3. The location is to be determined. At the event, members will share their thoughts with visitors and answer questions. Refreshments will be served.
Those interested in supporting LEAP may purchase gay pride rainbow bracelets from the group for $3 each. Orders can be placed with Wright. Proceeds benefit LEAP.