What Is It Like to Be Gay at a Christian College?

Calvin College's Student Newspaper Sheds Light on Issue

Ryan Struyk , the editor in chief of the Calvin Chimes
Ryan Struyk, the editor in chief of the Calvin Chimes, shared his story of being gay at Calvin College in a November 2013 issue of the school paper. |

Several weeks before Calvin College senior Ryan Struyk was due to return to school and assume his position as editor in chief of the student newspaper the Calvin Chimes last summer, he began mulling over how he might deepen the campus thought process on LGBT issues.

Struyk felt that the conversation had stagnated at his liberal arts, Michigan-based Christian college where he observed that many discussions among the 4,000 students were constrained and shallow, as many individuals did not personally know—or know that they knew—any LGBT students.

"Different pockets of Calvin students are in different places, Struyk told The Christian Post. "There are some groups on campus who have friends who are gay and are out, and there are some pockets of Calvin students who still use gay slurs and don't think they have any friends who are gay. I wanted to help [the latter] pockets realize there are a lot of these students asking these questions and might be in their own friend group that they don't know about."

Struyk was also ready to come out as gay, a secret that, up until last month, he had only revealed to his parents and closest friends.

Last month, the fruits of Struyk's idea came to fruition as Calvin Chimes published seven profiles of six current students and one alumna who shared their stories and reflections about being LGBT on the Michigan campus.

For Abby Paternoster, the opinion and editorial editor, who worked on the "Listen First" feature, one of her personal motivations for committing to the project was her desire to make her college "a better Christian community."

"As Christians we have to learn how to love one another and love one another well," Paternoster told CP. "[Additionally, within] our commitment to pursuing this [we have to ask] how to love our LGBT brothers and sisters, especially when they are not feeling as welcome in the community as those of us who are not LGBT."

This mindset impacted into how she and her colleague, Religion Editor Nathan Groenewold, articulated the vision for the profiles, where they asked writers to honestly share their experiences, but omit writing on moral and political questions.

"We do not want to continue to discuss in a way that causes us to forget to listen before speaking, or blurs our vision of Christ as the source of absolute truth and love. We hope the stories might stop abstract conversations and shatter false stereotypes," they wrote.

Within the seven first-person profiles, a decision Paternoster said enabled the authors to "have complete control over what they were saying," run threads of anxiety over losing acceptance and a sense of anonymity.

"I was afraid of being harassed, looked down upon, and worst of all, feeling again like I was singled out for my sexuality," wrote fifth-year senior Drew E.

For Ian Gackowski, who graduated in 2012, it was fear that his sexual orientation would keep him out of the favor of others.

"It's taken me years to understand that my sexuality doesn't hinge on the validation of others, and it will take even longer to learn how to live without that validation," Gackowski shared.

According to the Calvin College website, the institution believes "that homosexual orientation is not a sin," but "affirm that physical sexual intimacy has its proper place in the context of heterosexual marriage."

In a statement shared with CP, Matthew Kucinski, a spokesperson for Calvin, said that the school felt that the newspaper's decision to run the stories fell in line with its values.

"The college supports the students' decision to publish their stories in the college's student newspaper," Kucinski wrote. "We see the students trying to make Calvin College a better community. The students' goals in publishing these articles is to make the campus a more hospitable place for all students. And, that is something the college is committed to as it strives to be a Christian community where harassment and bullying are not acceptable."

Groenewold said he felt the administration had been supportive of Calvin Chimes both in the weeks leading up to it and after the fact.

"[The administration] really wanted to support writers that were coming out in Chimes. I was impressed by the way, even if we aren't always happy with the way they deal with everything LGBT on campus, that they gave us freedom to do something like this," said Groenewold.

One component of the story where The Chimes editorial staff felt they had room to improve, was increasing the diversity of the writers who had been recruited through reaching out to the school's gender and sexuality group, school chaplains and counselors, and contacts of Struyk. Of the seven who published narratives, six of those sharing were men and all of them white.

"The seven named people were the only people we received information from that were willing to do the feature," said Struyk, "I would have loved to have someone that was a racial minority write for us. I think that would have filled a gap that needs to be filled. We would have loved to have more women, too, but this is where we're at in the conversation. We're not going to be able to do this all in one fail swoop."

While the newspaper had braced itself for negative feedback, they were pleasantly surprised that the story seemed to generate positive feedback from alumni, faculty members and current students.

Struyk said that he felt that there had also been a breakthrough at the interpersonal level.

"I was terrified that if anyone ever found out, my life would come crashing down. After all, I had spent 20 years as a poster child for the church — and being gay definitely did not belong on the poster," he wrote on in his online narrative.

But he felt grateful for his friends who had reached out to him after he had posted his story on Facebook--not only those who had expressed their immediate support. Indeed, he was more encouraged by those who had asked him out for coffee to discuss his narrative further.

"Our goal was not to preach to the choir. Our goal was to really reach people for whom this might be new information, and you might have think about this and might start a new thought process for them," said Struyk. "That's our target audience: students who hadn't put a lot of thought into it, and now that they know someone who has come out, are going to begin to ask those questions."

Struyk added that, for him, the process of making himself personally vulnerable was scary, and yet something to which he believed his faith had called him.

"I think when it comes down to it, God uses you in ways that you may have never expected him to use you," said Struyk. "While it is easy to think 'Well somebody else do this,' 'Somebody else can put themselves out there,' when it comes down to it, somebody has to do it."

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