Queer students at Biola University, a Christian college "equipping men and women in mind and character to impact the world for the Lord Jesus Christ," have had enough. The university's policies include a penalty of expulsion for homosexuality, and their code of conduct puts "homosexual behavior" on the same plane as cheating and breaching the alcohol policy on-campus. These elements create a space many would characterize as "unsafe" for gay and gender non-conforming students on the Biola campus in La Merida, California.
Enter the Biola Queer Underground: an anonymous, covert, and unofficial Biola group working to "change hearts, not policies" on campus and establish a safer space for LGBTQ students within the small religious community they call home.
1. We want to bring to light the presence of the LGBTQ community at Biola. Despite what some may assume, there are Lesbians, Gays, Bisexuals, Transgender, and Queers at Biola. We are Biola’s students, alumni, employees, and fellow followers of Christ.
2. Biola’s value statement reads, “We believe that integrity and authenticity should be hallmarks of every believer. Our relationships should be models of transparency, truth-telling and unwavering commitment to the example set by the Lord Jesus Christ.” Although Biola may have good intentions in the way it handles homosexuality and related subjects, this does not foster the desired outcome of integrity and transparency among LGBTQ individuals. We speak for our majority in saying that most LGBTQ people feel isolated and fearful of rejection should we act with integrity and come out of the closet. Biola needs to take a close look at its fundamental values, first to question whether they are carried out, and second to discuss if identifying as LGBTQ is in fact contrary to these values.
3. We want to be treated with equality and respected as another facet of Biola’s diversity. Reconciling faith with non-conforming gender/sexual identities is our most important and difficult goal.
I wanted to sit down and talk to the people behind this incredible and important movement, but I do not live in California yet. (I'm coming for you as soon as I can.) I was still able to interview the BQU's collective founders, however, in the format of a an anonymous Q&A.
The Biola Queer Underground started when two gay people found one another and realized they were not alone. "Two of us had been friends for a few semesters and knew that each other were gay, and after hanging out for a while we realized how much we enjoyed the company of other queer folk at Biola," the members told me. "When you talk to a fellow LGBTQ person at Biola, simple conversation in the hall feels like a breath of fresh air."
The group was founded in February. The secretive nature of the group hasn't stopped it from growing. "We now have a few dozen members," the members told me. "So many of us felt passionately about making Biola a safer place for LGBTQ students so we decided that we needed to make the group public in some way, if only to help hurting kids at Biola find us. We got a lot of inspiration from Harding and their “Queer Press” zine, and other secretive LGBTQ groups at Christian universities."
Now, they have a website full of writing, art, updates, and other magnificent content. My favorite poem is "Straight Potatoes" because, well, it's great:
“Time travels in a line,” He said
“From past, to present, future. Straight.
That’s how it’s meant to be.”
“Potatoes, if allowed, if bred,
might be rainbows instead of white.
Oh please let me be free.”
“God cares about what’s done in bed
and making children is why we mate.
That’s how it’s meant to be.”
“My favorite color’s pink, not red
like chests of hummingbirds in flight.
Oh please let me be free.”
In order to spread the message of the BQU after it formed, the members had students from other universities spread promotional materials on the Biola campus in order to avoid being discovered. They covered Biola in "Biola is Queer" posters and BQU promotional materials containing QR codes to get people to the website faster.
Because the group is made up of queer students and faculty, and they are limited in their ability to be out safely, recruitment has been difficult for the BQU thus far. John Shore anonymously interviewed a member about the process:
“We have to be so careful… We have this whole system set up where we essentially, and very delicately, vet a person through talking to and connecting with their friends and associates. It’s a subtle process. But it works. By the time we actually extend someone an invitation to join us, we know that’s the right thing to do. And so far it’s been great. It’s surprised even us how many people have joined the group.”
The secrecy involved in maintaining the BQU's work extends even to the personal lives of its members. Anything "gay" can be a huge tip to the administration about who is running the operation. "From what we can see there is no active search for us or other LGBTQ students," the members said, "but we are still acting cautiously, because even if they are not actively trying to discover us, it would be foolish to think that they aren't at least keeping an eye out for anything that could point to us."
Thus, the role of alumni in the BQU is crucial - they are tied institutionally to the college but lack the threat of repercussions for their queer identities. Therefore, they serve as a strong force for maintaining the Underground's conversation and talking to the institution. John Charles, a 2010 alumni of the Music program, came out after his time at the university and believes deeply in BQU's work:
Charles grappled with his sexuality during his time at Biola, not feeling particularly attracted to a specific gender. Because his attraction was “more romantic or relational” than sexual, he felt he had no outlet to discuss these issues, as they did not fall into typical categories.
“It would have been extraordinarily helpful for me as a student to have a safe space to explore issues and to not be threatened by negative stereotypes,” Charles said, emphasizing what he sees as the need for a group like BQU.
Chris Grace, Vice President for Student Development, University Planning, and Information Technology - and the man who confused homosexuality with underage drinking - stated in Biola's campus paper that he believes the school has "healthy" conversations with queer students about their identities and then quickly reminded the reporter that homosexuality goes against their standards:
“We would walk along, or engage with, or assist that . . . student,” Grace said.
However, if someone is actively engaged in a same-sex relationship, the process with Student Development will differ.
“On the other hand, if a student says ‘I’m not struggling in this area, I’m in a [same-sex] relationship, and I think you’re wrong and I’m right,’ that [process] will be very different because they are violating our standards,” he said.
Administrative responses to the Biola Queer Underground's actions have been predictable thus far. The last chapel of the year included a speech on homosexuality by Dr. Barry Corey, the President, that repeated what queer students at Biola already know - that they are not affirmed or welcomed as they are:
“We will not be in agreement with those who see sexual relationships legitimized in same sex couples. Biola’s position will may not satisfy those in the LGBTQ community. I am willing to live with this level of disagreement. …God is calling us to a life of purity and holiness....We’re called always to retreat to the cross where repentance and forgiveness happens, surrendering my will every day to Christ’s will. These are the people who Jesus received right? He always received the sinner, the struggler, who came to Him with an open heart to be forgiven and be called His disciple. This is how Jesus still is. Who did He (Jesus) rise up in anger and not receive? Those who quoted scripture like the Pharisees and wanted to legitimize a certain way of life that Jesus said was not right.”
This is a a hugely unwelcoming sentiment for the BQU organizers. "BQU assumes that his analogy places our group’s ‘agenda’ as one similar to the Pharisees," said the anonymous members. "In case you didn’t know, in Christian lingo, the Pharisees are one of the worst people groups to be compared to. Clearly, we find this to be little more than insulting and ironic."
In addition, the school published a new statement on human sexuality, stating that “any acts of sexual intimacy between two persons of the same sex as an illegitimate moral option for the confessing Christian.” The statement was in the works for years, but only released after the BQU's initial actions. The BQU responded on their website:
We restate that our goal is to change hearts not policies, yet it appears that Biola administration is responding to our to our hearts’ pleas with a revised statement. The Biola Queer Underground (BQU), is not declaring war on Biola; we deeply love and appreciate Biola and its administration and seek to live peaceably and openly within this community. Biola does not need to be in complete agreement on every subject to be a harmonious and open environment.
Biola claims to want a dialogue. However, unless LGBTQ students who don’t view homosexuality or transgender identity as sinful are allowed to speak openly without threat, this conversation will continue to be one–sided. Without inviting Christians speakers who have a different view of homosexuality, fruitful dialogue will not happen. In the past, your monologues on homosexuality have not been good or fair to us. We understand your interpretation of scripture; please hear ours.
Grace also continued to verbally confirm that students can and will be punished for homosexuality in various interviews. "Our Vice President Chris Grace made a very telling statement to World California Magazine, saying 'If [those who act against Biola's statements on homosexuality] persist, even after conversations with the faculty, the students will be violating their signed contract,” the anonymous members told me. "In that case, Grace tells them: 'This isn't the place for you.'"
To the BQU, these responses are signals that the work they are doing is necessary and their anonymity is of the utmost importance. "While we do not feel actively threatened by administration, we also do not feel safe in light of their responses to us," the members divulged to me. They added, "while some of us would be willing to come out and risk expulsion, that might put others in the group at risk (by association), which is why all of us stayed anonymous."
Despite the damaging environment, queer students at Biola aren't necessarily willing to sacrifice a religiously based education for their identities. "While we are LGBTQ, we are also Christians, and we value the Christian education we get at Biola, even if we disagree Biola's theological position on homosexuality," an anonymous member told me. Similarly, transferring can be difficult for Biola students because of their required 30 units of Bible, which don't necessarily transfer usefully to other universities. Lots of other factors could a queer Biola student make -- like students who come out while enrolled, come from conservative families who refuse to support a less religious education, or want the kind of religious study only offered at Biola.
For queer students at Biola, changes in the environment are directly related to positive impacts on their well-being and self-image. And the BQU means no longer hoping for that alone. When speaking with John Shore, an anonymous member said:
Just tell them we’re here. That’s all we want, is for people to know that we exist. Even though our group is large, we can’t help but feel awfully isolated, having to be so secretive, always knowing that at any moment our whole world might be turned upside down and shaken hard, just because of who we are. So it would be a huge comfort for us to know that out there in the world people know of us, and support us in what we’re doing. From deep underground we are calling for love and acceptance. It’d be nice to know that our voice broke through the surface, and that someone out there actually heard us.
The efforts of the Biola Queer Underground are more than admirable. They're inspirational. "I think all of us especially found courage [to do this] from our faith," the members asserted. "The most commonly used phrase in the Bible is 'Do not be afraid' so a lot of us kept such verses in our minds during this process."
May they never become afraid.