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New school year, same fight for equality: What's happening at Seattle Pacific University

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Photo by Josephine Baird
Photo by Josephine Baird

According to its website, Seattle Pacific University is a "nationally ranked" university, having received recognition from Forbes (2018) as one of "America's top colleges" and Colleges of Distinction (2018) as "a national college of distinction."

This year, SPU made yet another list — as one of the "absolute worst, most unsafe campuses for LGBTQ youth," according to Campus Pride.

While this title might be new, SPU has a history of discrimination. The fight for equality has been long for its students, faculty, and alumni.

For example, after a frustrating year of demonstrations, protests, and lawsuits, SPU has made no changes to its statement on human sexuality that "sexual experience is intended between a man and a woman." It is because of this statement and a general mindset, that adjunct nursing professor Jeaux Rinedahl filed a lawsuit against SPU for sexual orientation discrimination last January. Rindehal claims he was denied a full-time position because he is Gay, despite his qualifications.

It is because of this history of discrimination that SPU student leaders have committed to bringing about positive change during the new school year.

Interim SPU President Pete Menjares (far right) — Photo by Josephine Baird  

Public forum
In accordance with these efforts, on Monday the student government, the Associated Students of SPU, hosted a public forum to "mark the beginning of a joint effort to bring positive change to campus this year." The event was titled a "conversation" in which a moderated panel, comprising President Pete Menjares and members of ASSPU's core leadership, answered questions submitted by students, staff, and alumni. The turnout was decent, despite the classic Seattle rain.

The event started with an impassioned prayer to God by Chloe Guillot, an ASSPU representative, what she described as a lament. Guillot said, "We mourn the harm done to the LGBTQ+ community in your name. Our souls cry out for the ways we have fashioned your words into weapons, piercing the hearts of those who simply wish to love and be loved."

In her prayer, Guillot referenced the students' continued fight for equality, mentioning how 10 years ago, Queer students were denied a safe space to gather; four years ago, students protested to no avail in Tiffany Loop; and a year ago, a professor was cast out of the community because of his sexuality, proving that this issue is one with a deep history on campus. She ended the prayer on a hopeful note, that all listening would come into this conversation "with open hearts and open minds."

Photo by Josephine Baird  

After the prayer, student leaders read testimonies from students, staff, and alumni, stories of anger, disappointment, frustration, and hope. Afterward, they read and answered questions with President Menjares. While the audience seemed to enjoy listening to the answers from student leaders, Menjares' answers were highly anticipated. After years of what student Raegan Figgins describes as "talking to a wall," having a conversation — no matter how general it was — was a step in the right direction.

The first question was, "What do you hope/envision for SPU? First by this spring and then in four years from now?" In response, student leader Reena Sidhu said, "I hope that gay and queer faculty and staff get hired and are able to be out. Queer staff do not affect our education, but homophobic staff and faculty do." This answer was followed by a round of applause.

President Menjares also shared his vision for the school by saying, "Whether it's in the spring or in another year, or four years, I hope SPU will be a more unified and inclusive community." Then he proceeded to mention his "unique role" in which he interacts with donors, some as old as 93.

Menjares cited his experience in public higher education, claiming to be an "expert in areas of race, ethnicity, intercultural, and low-income education," but expressing his desire to be honest in that he's "not an expert in LGBTQ+ issues." He shared that he "doesn't even know what pronouns mean" at two different points during the forum, but that he is willing to learn.

He said, "I've been asking for colleagues both here and outside of this institution to refer me to experts, to refer me to resources," but that he's concluded that "maybe the most important thing that I can do is listen."

Even if the event seemed to be a step in the right direction, it left students and their leaders wanting more. One PhD student, Kiana Clay, said, "I am hopeful because the president did show up. However, I don't really think that words mean anything if they're not backed up with action."

ASSP President Laur Lugos said she believes that the next steps need to be toward material change. "I don't think we can theorize how we can be respecting queer people on campus; I think it's time to change policies regarding allowing queer people into our campus spaces," she said.

Lugos said she believes that the mission will be most successful if they receive support from the greater Seattle community. She added, "We need witnesses for what exactly is going on here; we want to hold our university accountable for actually creating environments of inclusion."

To learn more about the student-led fight for LGBTQ+ visibility and equality on SPU's campus, follow https://www.instagram.com/spualum_lgbtq