Reflections on a Second Homecoming
by John Michael, a 2010 Wheaton College graduate
Soulforce has visited Wheaton College on the Equality Ride in both 2006 and 2012. Wheaton is a preeminent school among Christian higher education and is also a leading voice in the “Ex-Gay” Movement. The following is a report on the experiences of Wheaton College’s unrecognized LGBT alumni group, OneWheaton, and their self-organized Homecoming this fall.
As any queer person who’s grown up in a church will tell you, returning to a community of faith is an awkward, clumsy thing. It is both a sense of nostalgia and rejection. Ever since signing my name to the open letter OneWheaton released on Wheaton College campus I’ve been anxious about a return. Almost 2 months ago now I found myself sitting in front of a Facebook message asking if I would be willing to speak on a panel about Sexuality, Faith, and Wheaton for OneWheaton’s “Out Loud” Homecoming celebration. While on campus I had come out to friends and was pretty open to those who inquired or if I felt compelled to share, but had never had to publicly represent myself as queer in front of the college community.
For those who don’t know, OneWheaton is an unaffiliated community of LGBT and allied Wheaton alumni and current students offering a queer-positive and affirming space for other LGBT Wheaties in contrast to the schools rigid moral policy on homosexuality. The college’s institution wide stance has in many ways helped create a conversely isolating and lonely place for current and past queer students. And while such an atmosphere is not created with this intention – the reality is Wheaton, like many other faith based colleges and universities, has historically been a place of hurt and pain for queer students.
I can personally look back at my time at Wheaton quite positively – I was extremely active in student activities and performance. Had the honor of frequently leading the campus community in worship during chapels. Found community and friendship the likes of which I don’t think I’ll ever find again. But for all of the good on campus in my time, there was still a lot of ignorance surrounding so many issues of oppression and privilege – whether race, gender, or sexuality based. This brand of ignorance, which in a particularly evangelical way seems to know the right and wrong of everything, was and is in so many ways painfully alienating. Within the OneWheaton community and in many others like it, there are members with scars older and deeper than mine caused by ignorance as well intentioned as it might be and some with wounds caused even by overt prejudice. The college experience for many queer Wheaton alumni is filled with depression, self-hate, betrayal, and great loss. So it is no surprise that many have not been back to the campus since graduating. Many have stayed away for over 20 years.
The reason why I go into so much detail about my experience at Wheaton, the type of place it is and the hurt that exists when a bible verse and good intentions are not enough is because the beauty of the “Out Loud” Homecoming doesn’t make sense without it. Because for so many this celebration was not returning to campus to see if the place you took organic chemistry is still exactly the way you remember it or meeting up with your old college roomies for a meal in your old college dining hall. It was an event acknowledging the difficulty many endured to that moment in time. A moment which took joy in its unabashed pride, paid respect to the hurt and the loss, and invited everyone in to simply Belong.
There were alumni and current students alike. Most queer, many allies, some even disagreeing. One friend later commented on the night: “It feels like a meeting of the early church.” And in a way I think it did – people outcast from this normative way of thinking and worshiping finding pride and comfort in the company and celebration of one another. The first half of the night was a variety show of sorts. Music, poetry, spoken word – it was more than just entertainment. It was a chance for many to share their hurt as well as their pride. An opportunity for all gathered to put a melody and rhyme to what once was felt as brokenness now revealed to be wholeness. There were moments of gravity as well as moments of laughter and lightness. The acts were all very well done and there was a great appreciation for the gifts and talents shared along with the stories they represented.
The second part of the night was the panel on Sexuality, Faith and Wheaton. It was my extreme pleasure to share as well as to listen as a part. The group of 6 LGBTQA Wheaton grads (and one current student) fielded questions on the conflicts that arise out of being gay and a coming from a Christian background – some pre-written and others from the audience. One of the great things about OneWheaton is that it functions as a viewpoint counter to the view being served to queer students on campus – one that says the traditional answers to this ‘problem’ you’re wrestling with are not the only answers out there. I feel confident that with the number of current students represented that night, this goal was served and that some isolated gay Wheatie walked out with their world that much more open for them.
There are two specific moments that I will not forget from the weekend, besides the numerous introductions to people who I knew only through Facebook conversations in the LGBTQA alumni group. The first was Friday night during the panel portion – an audience question was asked. It was at first misunderstood and sort of brushed off. But 5 minutes later, after we had moved on, the panelist who first answered realized the question was possibly from a questioning current student. Then understanding what the question intended and the importance of answering it properly. She took the initiative to answer as such (pardon my paraphrase): ‘The question was whether a person can live in a gay marriage and not have sex – while still falling within what’s considered theologically right.’ But in a relationship, in a marriage, sex goes far beyond just intercourse. It’s the way she smells. The way she holds you. The curvature of her back that you love so much. And there’s no avoiding those things, there’s just no changing the way you feel or who you love.
The second goes hand in hand with the first. It was the next night after the gathering at St. Mark’s and many OneWheaton members enjoyed the hospitality of an Allied couple who graciously hosted a dinner for the group. What stood out to me that night though was playing with the kids of these Gay and Lesbian and Allied couples in the backyard. One alumn who had graduated years ago mentioned how great it was being able to see a time where kids from queer and straight families could play together without predjudice or hate but with love and joy. I replied for me it was a type of validation of a world in which I hope to someday raise children. The whole weekend overflowed with feelings of love and acceptance from the very youngest to the not as young.
So whatever your story is, I hope that OneWheaton can be an example to you that in spite of the hurt that ignorance and prejudice can cause, every queer person has a right to a homecoming. That however Out, or Loud, or Proud you are you Belong and you are Loved.