The Safest Space in Claremont
My senior year of high school, I established a safe space. Of course, at that point in my life, I had never heard the phrase “safe space,” so I called it the Gay-Straight Alliance. At its best, the GSA was a family for kids who did not otherwise have a supportive community. And in my tiny rural high school, there were a lot of queer kids who needed family.
Still, the GSA struggled to be everything those students needed. It’s hard to build a community that consistently cares for its members. Regardless of their circumstances, people in a group tend to prioritize their standing in the group above the wellbeing of others. And, in many ways, safe spaces come engineered to make that worse. They are supposed to be somewhere members can be emotionally vulnerable and open. So, usually, the leadership is given the power to remove bullies who would pounce on that vulnerability.
The only problem is that this often gets abused.
A friend of mine started a GSA-like organization at her college freshman year and it imploded. New leadership were verbally abusive towards bisexual and pansexual students before ruling to ban them from meetings completely. Since these students could “pass as straight,” they were considered just as threatening to the group’s “safety” as straight people. In reality, their identities just made them easy to bully.
That safe space, like far too many do, allowed no room for dissenting views. The appointed leaders dictated the common good, what was right and wrong, who was pure and who was dangerous. No one could defend the outcasts, for fear of being deemed sinful themselves.
So I didn’t seek out a safe space my first year at Claremont. I visited the Queer Resource Center when I toured the colleges, but I never came back. The staff seemed nice and there were certainly times I could have used a community. I just didn’t think I would find it there, seeing as I was conservative, Christian, and—most importantly—fond of speaking my mind.
Then, last year, my friend dragged me to a 3CIV bible study. I had my misgivings. The people seemed nice but, again, I wasn’t sure I’d fit in. 3CIV is a branch of InterVarsity serving CMC, Scripps, and Harvey Mudd and as such is an Evangelical organization. I was raised as an Episcopalian, which is about as different you can get from InterVarsity stylistically and theologically without being Catholic. I figured I could get past the lack of hymns and stained glass, but did not think they’d be able to move beyond my opinions on scripture. Particularly, I didn’t think they’d get past me identifying as bisexual.
I wouldn’t have really blamed them if they didn’t allow me to join. After all, the QRC and other liberal groups on campus wouldn’t have accepted me for my political and religious views. It wasn’t any stranger for an Evangelical to think my choice to act on my sexual identity made me intolerable. And my personal experience with Evangelicals told me that’s what I should expect.
Then 3CIV blew my expectations apart. No matter how many points we disagreed on, no matter how much I pushed back, this group still treated me like someone with a soul. They prayed with me, talked with me, and welcomed me in as a member of their community. When I talked about my own experiences with homophobia, this Evangelical bible study listened to me and loved me.
That kind of unconditional care set the standard for all of our meetings. I was safe to disagree with someone and they were safe to disagree with me. Consequently, I had some of the best conversations I’ve ever had about healthy relationships and queerness with members of that evangelical bible study.
I was equal parts shocked and horrified last April when the Associated Students of Harvey Mudd College (ASHMC) decided to withdraw 3CIV’s funding on the grounds that it discriminated against LGBTQ students.
According to Carla Becker, ASHMC Senate Chair, while 3CIV welcomes anyone as a member, it requires that its official student leaders “exemplify Christlike character, conduct and leadership,” referring to several biblical passages, including 1 Corinthians 6: 7-11. Among other things, the passage states, “Fornicators, idolaters, adulterers, male prostitutes, sodomites, thieves, the greedy, drunkards, revilers, robbers – none of these will inherit the kingdom of God.” Accordingly, leaders must agree that sex outside of a monogamous, heterosexual marriage is immoral. If they disagree, they are asked to step down as official leaders but are still welcome as members.
So, ASHMC explained, in February, two Harvey Mudd leaders of 3CIV were asked to step down: one because of his views on the eternal nature of Hell and the other because of their perspective on sex outside of heterosexual marriage. According to Ms. Becker, “The leaders agreed to step down, but a friend of the members thought the action…discriminatory and went against the nondiscriminatory statement ASHMC requires in the charter of all ASHMC chartered clubs… This sparked discussion in the senate about whether or not leaders of religious clubs can be held to certain beliefs.”
That discussion is still ongoing as ASHMC holds a closed subcommittee this summer to decide exactly what it thinks. For 3CIV, this discourse has already had negative consequences.
On April 17, 3CIV requested $1000 in scholarship funds to send Mudd students to InterVarsity’s regional summer conference and “[a] senate member then motioned to give 3CIV $0 for the conference. The motion was seconded… The same senate member read [Corinthians 6: 7-11], mentioned cases of discrimination they had heard about from past LGBTQ member(s) of 3CIV, and mentioned a booklet published by InterVarsity on how parents can prevent homosexuality.” On April 24 the motion passed with 5 in favor, 4 opposed, and 3 abstentions. Though the alleged mistreatment of LGBTQ students was discussed, ASHMC’s decision ultimately hinged on the idea that 3CIV forces leaders who disagree with its stance on sex to step down.
The only problem is that isn’t factually true. According to the head of 3CIV, Kate Vosburg, “3CIV leaders are not asked to step down if they disagree with the belief that sex outside of marriage is immoral. However, they are asked not to teach against this belief. In the last 11 years I’ve been with 3CIV, we have not asked any leader to step down because of their personal beliefs about sex.”
Granted, this could just be a sizable mistake on ASHMC’s part, but it’s fairly large oversight and that makes me wonder why 3CIV came under fire at all. The idea that club leaders should represent their clubs’ ideals is not unusual. No one balks if the leader of a young republicans club is required to be a republican.
ASHMC’s behavior could be warranted if 3CIV were a particularly hateful organization. Though the leaders in 3CIV have much less power than, say, the leaders of my friends’ GSA, they still could be guilty of abusing it. However, the evidence indicates that is simply not true.
The leaders who were asked to step down in February did so amicably. When asked to comment, one of the ex-leaders, Nathaniel Leslie, said he did not feel discriminated against and commented: “I disagree with some of the organization’s theology and the way that they go about spreading it. However, I regard all of the people in 3CIV very highly. They are some of the kindest people that I have ever met.”
The other former leader, who wished to remain anonymous, stated:
“I think 3CIV is a great resource for a lot of Christians on campus, but it sadly does not represent all denominations of Christianity, nor does it claim to. Next year, with the support and good wishes of 3CIV, a few friends and I are going to work on creating another Christian group at Mudd that does not align itself with any denomination, in hopes to provide a welcoming place for Christians of all backgrounds, as well as anyone who is interested in exploring the Christian faith.”
Unfortunately, ASHMC chose to withhold the names of the students who allegedly experienced discrimination within 3CIV so I cannot comment on their experience, but judging only from my own I would be surprised if 3CIVers treated queer students unlovingly.
So it seems to me that the crux of the issue is not how 3CIV treats students or the construction of their charter, but probably ASHMC’s own prejudice against evangelical Christianity.
If that’s the case, it wouldn’t be terribly surprising. I love 3CIV now, but a year ago I would have assumed they were unfriendly towards queer. And I certainly wasn’t alone in that prejudice. Colleges are notoriously unfriendly towards religion and outright hostile towards evangelical Christians, who suffer state-sponsored oppression nationally for expressing their views.
However, what matters now is what ASHMC does to remedy their mistake. Come this fall, ASHMC will review whether or not to recognize 3CIV’s charter. Their decision will not be just a matter of free speech and religious liberty. It will help determine our campus culture.
In reality, 3CIV succeeds where the POC-only discussions and online forums, my friends’ GSA, and every other segregated “safe” space fails. Despite the increasingly common persecution of evangelical Christians, 3CIV opens its arms to every single student like a sister, comforts them like a mother, and strengthens them in the way a family should.
Corrections: The piece previously asserted that 3CIV asks leaders to step down if they disagree that sex outside of marriage is immoral and that the Asian Pacific Islander Support Program At Mudd only accepts Asian Pacific Islanders. Additionally, the articled stated that Students for Middle Eastern Cultural Promotion and the Society of Hispanic Professional Engineers are live organizations at Harvey Mudd.
These statements have been adjusted since this story’s initial publication.