[Editor's note: Over 47 years, the Seattle Gay News has covered thousands of stories that still resonate today. This week we look back at two of them, one from February 2006 and the other from February 2011. We also offer updates on each story.]
by Shaun Knittel -
SGN Associate Editor
The [effort] of Haven, a student-led group at Seattle Pacific University dedicated to discussing sexuality and LGBT issues, to get official club status from the school's administrators has left the confines of the campus and is now in print, online, and all over the news radio broadcasts.
A little over a week ago, news of the students' fight for recognition appeared in The Falcon, the campus newspaper of the Christian university of liberal arts, sciences, and professions. Almost overnight, the story picked up speed and has already resulted in dozens of SPU alumni criticizing the administration for its January 25 decision to deny Haven the right to meet on campus.
Haven was formed four years ago as a result of the LGBT Equality Ride movement that came to campus. Since that time, Haven leaders have sought official Associated Students of Seattle Pacific club status, only to be denied.
Then, on January 25, they received the worst news yet from Associate Vice President for Academic Affairs Jeff Jordan. The group was told they will no longer be granted the right to reserve rooms on campus for group meetings. In addition, Jordan told the students he would no longer discuss the possibility of official club status for Haven.
Despite the setback, Haven leadership assured the SGN, "Haven will not disappear."
Haven has always been in a fight to exist. The group has never been officially recognized as a student club or organization, as far as the administration is concerned. Nevertheless, according to Haven leadership, the group is well known on campus.
"Haven has roughly 15-20 people that regularly attend our weekly meetings," Aaron Roberts, co-leader of SPU Haven, told the SGN.
Roberts says he joined Haven because he wanted a place on campus where he didn't have to "feel like a deviant because of my sexuality."
"Haven is the one time a week that I can be around people who understand or can sympathize with my struggles, being Gay, and going to SPU and society in general," he said. "In essence, it is a time when I can be open with people who really care."
SPU student Joy Bethune, Haven's leader, told the SGN, "Haven has meant more to me than I could ever express in words. I have made friends through Haven that have changed my life for the better. It has restored my faith in humanity and connected me to like-minded people. And because of the people involved in Haven and in support of Haven, I am confident that I will never regret going to SPU."
Bethune says she feels honored to be able to be associated with Haven because of "what the group has been able to provide SPU students for the past four years: a place for the silence to end and discussion to thrive at SPU."
So what seems to be the problem?
"The issue that the administration points to is our purpose statement," Caleb Richmond, Haven co-leader, told the SGN. "However, this is not the root of the issue. Haven has given dozens of carefully written statements to the administration for the last four years. [The administration was] never without an idea of what Haven stood for. Since we refused to affirm their stance on homosexuality as our starting place, they have accused Haven of promoting a lifestyle that is in opposition to their beliefs. On the contrary, Haven has tried to uphold the university's ideals of 'engaging the culture' by discussing the controversial topics of sexuality at SPU."
In other words, homophobia is the elephant in the room. To gain a better understanding of where Jordan and the administration are coming from on the issue, the SGN repeatedly made an effort to contact SPU officials. All phone messages and emails were left unanswered.
Jordan tried to explain himself in SPU's newspaper, The Falcon. "I don't think we have, in some way, said, 'Stop talking about sex.' We haven't done that, nor do we want to do that."
He went on to say that "no one believes we shouldn't have conversations about sexuality. Some of these things-conversations about sexuality-are happening in many places on campus as it is."
But what Jordan never says once, in the two major articles written by The Falcon staff over the last two weeks, are the words "homosexuality" or "LGBT." He dances around the topic completely, citing, like Richmond pointed out, the issue of the Haven mission statement and the makeup of the group's pastor panel.
'We were operating without an idea of Haven's purpose-at least the administration didn't have one," said Jordan. "So there was a good-faith effort that I felt like I was doing on behalf of the university and administration to say, 'We will give you space, but we also need this to be worked on.'"
According to Haven leadership, that is exactly what they began to do. They set about revising their mission statement to address what they wanted to be as a group.
According to its statement of purpose, "Haven recognizes that SPU has a Statement on Human Sexuality that defines the university's position. Haven will ensure that the content of this statement is clearly presented in our activities. Because Haven exists to promote safe and respectful conversations, however, Haven will ensure that all views, even those in disagreement with SPU's Statement, are presented fairly and impartially."
Haven submitted its new mission statement in January in vain. They were ultimately told that they would not be recognized and that they could meet, but it would have to be informally and unofficially, and held in public space.
That is not good enough, say Haven leadership, as the personal nature of Haven discussions requires privacy since the main goal is for it to be a safe place for discussion on campus. "When we don't have a safe place that is our own," said the group, "it compromises our ability to be a safe space."
SPU students show support
"I haven't personally faced any problems from other students from being a part of Haven," Becky Jennings, Haven co-leader, told the SGN. "The student body is generally very supportive."
Jennings says there is some misconception that all the students who are part of Haven identify as LGBT, when really it is a mix. "My perception of the student body is that, by and large, they are supportive of Haven."
"I think it is very important to say that SPU is not a bad school," adds Roberts. "Some of the most supportive people in my life have been my professors. Haven has a ton of support from the student body. The problem at SPU is not the faculty and it is not the majority of students; it is the administration. It is sad that a university [that] touts this idea of engaging culture is so afraid of LGBT people. We are a part of the world out there, yet the university likes to pretend that we don't exist."
Roberts says he definitely feels discriminated against by the administration. "Haven is not simply an LGBT group," he said. "We are a discussion group. However, the discussion is focused on the LGBT experience, and the university doesn't like that. As a Gay man, it is hard not to ask myself what is so wrong with me and others like me that my university would try so hard to prevent students from talking about how someone like myself experiences the world. What is so wrong with LGBT people that we've become a topic undeserving of, at the very least, discourse, if not full acceptance?"
"To me," agreed Bethune, "it feels, smells, looks, sounds, and tastes just like homophobia."
"We can speculate about the political reasons within the institution as to what is stopping them from giving us the respect and recognition that other student groups get almost automatically, but at the core of all the speculations is always homophobia," she said. "It seems like many Christian communities have been having trouble facing their own fears and deciding to love and accept everyone equally, which is what I think is happening here at SPU."
"I also think that the administration is frustrated with us because no matter how many times they say no, we will not go away-and we never will," she said.
Bethune says she wants everyone to know that there are Gay students at SPU who are in the closet because they are scared to come out.
Still, Bethune says that there are a number of reasons why LGBT students may attend SPU. "The faculty at this institution are some of the most brilliant, supportive, passionate, encouraging, intelligent, and caring of any faculty I know of," she said. "They are a huge part of why I go here."
"Haven is a unique club in many ways," explained Richmond. "We meet weekly, more often than any of the other clubs I know of."
He said there are other clubs that focus on social justice and other topics that are approved and are very essential. Sophia, the feminist club on campus, has very strong discussions in a Christian context. There are many conversations being had on the SPU campus about difficult topics-"this helps eliminate the stigma," said Richmond. "Haven wants to help eliminate that kind of stigma around sexuality. We do not all have to agree, but we should be talking about this openly."
Haven has held a steady goal for the last four years. Haven is about creating a safe space on campus to talk about sexuality and LGBT topics in an informative and respectful way.
Richmond says that Haven "would love to work with SPU to make the whole school a safer and healthier place for all students, straight or Gay."
According to Richmond, the only thing the university has to do to provide a safe space is allow Haven to begin using classrooms for meetings, as they did before. "It would be preferable that they also allow us to publicize on campus," he added. "Ideally, they should abide by the system and rules that they set up on campus for club status. We are primarily fighting for club status because that would guarantee us rights like rooms and publicity."
Haven leadership told the SGN that they will work to provide a safe space for the SPU students whether or not the administration recognizes the group.
UPDATE: A week after our story, The Stranger printed a letter from the SPU's vice president for academic affairs, Dr. Les Steele, who sent an email to university staff, asking for forgiveness and saying that Haven leaders were being invited to talk with school administrators about "a way forward." Haven still exists today and can be found on the university's website under intercultural clubs. However, as we published in our January 29, 2021 issue, SPU is in the news again, due to a lawsuit by openly gay nursing professor Je'aux Rinedahl, who is suing the university for being denied a full-time position.