Kindling Conversation: SAU students and alumni on being LGBTQ+ on a conservative campus

By Elise Emmert & Celeste Fendt

Caitlin Stout, class of 2017, grew up in Jackson and first learned about SAU through her church. The Spring Arbor University (SAU) students in her youth group were part of what convinced her to come to school here. Stout said the idea of having a Christian community on campus also drew her in.

During her four years here, Stout said she grew significantly in her faith and as a dedicated supporter of social justice.

“A lot of [my growth] has been a result of the fact that this has been a very difficult place to be a gay Christian,” Stout said.

For members of the LGBTQ+ community at SAU, finding support in the form of a leader or mentor can be challenging because of limits imposed by the student handbook and community guidelines.

Stout said what helped her through the difficult times was the realization that she was not alone, and the group of friends that was alongside her showing support.

“I always kind of joke that SAU has made me a better Christian but not in any of the ways they intended to,” Stout said. “The LGBT community, both on this campus and at large, has kind of been the group of people who have shown me what church should look like.”

The LGBT community, both on this campus and at large, has kind of been the group of people who have shown me what church should look like. – Caitlin Stout, class of 2017

According to senior W. Cody Pitts, the LGBTQ+ community works mostly underground. But this, he said, is not because of harassment from other students.

“A lot of people that I think go here who are in the (LGBTQ+) community love our community and love the people here,” Pitts said.

Pitts came to SAU wanting to be an activist for the LGBTQ+ community on campus, and spent his sophomore year questioning different things about himself and how he identified before coming out to a few close friends and family.

Later, after working as an RA his sophomore and junior years, Pitts left the job behind since he decided he could no longer continue to agree with everything the school stood for, a contract requirement for student leaders.

Since coming out publicly, Pitts came to be a type of leader to other students on campus who came to him with questions. He also said he has been “a lot happier” this year than he had been in the past.

Ben Coakley, an SAU class of 2017 alumnus, said most of the people he encountered while on campus were willing to have conversations with him concerning sexuality, even when they were non-affirming. Large-scale conversations, he said, probably did not happen as often because people were afraid of upsetting others with their ideas or opinions.

Coakley said he felt “different” growing up, but didn’t know anyone who identified as LGBTQ+ and didn’t have the language to describe what he was feeling. This kept him from being able to have a conversation with himself about sexuality until he met students his freshman year who identified as gay.

During his freshman year, Coakley thought he was the only student wondering about his sexuality because he did not have anyone to talk to. Meeting other LGBTQ+ students on campus gave him a support system of people to talk to with whom he felt more at ease.

“The thing that I hate most is any student feeling like they’re alone and feeling like they don’t have a support system, for whatever reason,” Coakley said. “That should be a concern for everyone, regardless of your theology.”

I just want people to have conversation with the understanding that (for) someone you’re talking to or for someone in the room, this is personal for them – Ben Coakley, class of 2017

LGBTQ+ students not only face feeling alone on campus, but also face being afraid of coming out because of handbook guidelines. Because the handbook prohibits the defense or advocacy of a homosexual lifestyle, even something as simple as identifying as LGBTQ+ could be seen as breaking school policies.

An anonymous member of the LGBTQ+ community at SAU said the student body has been their biggest support system on campus. Not every student, however, contributes to this support.

The student said most SAU students have validated and protected the LGBTQ+ students, but others dismiss them.

“When it’s something that you can’t change about you, it really hurts when people put that down and say that it doesn’t exist,” the student said.

Dreams for the Future

Despite the difficulties LGBTQ+ students face on campus, some do have a vision for the future of the community.

For Coakley, progress is best found in visibility and dialogue. This means both acknowledging there are LGBTQ+ students on campus and allowing conversation about differing viewpoints to take place publicly.

“I just want people to have conversation with the understanding that (for) someone you’re talking to or for someone in the room, this is personal for them,” Coakley said.

The anonymous student doesn’t expect SAU to become affirming of the LGBTQ+ community anytime soon. But they hope it will become more open about this crucial topic by hosting panel discussions and creating a more inviting atmosphere.

Pitts agrees with the emphasis on representation, and hopes the school would eventually allow the LGBTQ+ community to form a group or organization where they could publicly affirm what they believe. With this, he said students could approach the group, start conversations and come to their own conclusions.

The goal is not necessarily to make the school change its values or beliefs. The Free Methodist Church does not affirm homosexuality, but Pitts said part of living in a contemporary world is being able to engage with people who disagree with you. A place for students to be out publicly and support the LGBTQ+ community without fear would embody that.

“It’s not really about what you believe,” Pitts said. “It’s about showing people love.”

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