Today is a big day at Harding University. Past and present students who are gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender will have their voices heard in the form of a self-published zine distributed on the religiously and politically conservative Searcy, Arkansas campus. I was going to post this at the same time the physical copies of the zine would be distributed on the campus tonight, but the publication was leaked early, so quite a few people are already aware of its existence. But whether you’re a current or former student of Harding University or don’t even know where the heck Searcy, Arkansas is, you should check this zine out. While it focuses primarily on students experiences of being closeted and marginalized gays at a religiously fundamentalistic college in the South, there are still universal themes here to which all should pay attention.
The group behind this publication calls themselves the Harding University Queer Press. Their name alone will irk many administrative heads at the campus in Searcy, but more on that later. I was asked a week ago by HUQP to review the zine, so here we go.
Clocking in at a brief, yet substantial, thirty-two pages, the zine is split up into primarily three sections. The first deals with anonymous individuals telling their personal stories of coming to terms with being homosexual and the grace or condemnation they received after telling the people around them.
This section includes one student’s reflections on the course material of Dr. Joe Brumfield’s course Christian Home, a “Bible” class I took my senior year. Now, I will go ahead and state that I have issues with the class, but not the man Dr. Brumfield himself; however, the things taught in this course were ridiculous, and he had an entire side packet along with our “textbook” (a has-not-been-revised-in-over-twenty-years handbook on how a home should be run so as to glorify God). The side packet never cited actual scientific, psychological, or scholarly-of-any-kind research and hadn’t even been updated by Dr. Brumfield himself in nearly ten years. The propagation of ill-informed myths centered specifically on homosexuality were mind-boggling. I used to wonder how a gay or lesbian would feel reading this section in class, but now I wonder no longer, for a student simply called “K” answers all my questions on pages eight through ten of the zine.
The next section deals with how faith and homosexuality intersect for these writers of the zine. Believe it or not, most identify themselves as Christians, which I find to be remarkable—not because of any moral discrepancy, but because I’m dumbfounded they haven’t given up on the Church yet. The stories in this section explicate how they approach Scripture, the intensity and delicacy with which they respectfully dig into God’s Word, what life at Harding did to their faith and how it harmed it, and why they believe there’s way too much spiritual emphasis on this whole topic when the Bible isn’t even a handbook on sexuality.
The third and last section is a bit of a smorgasbord, but first deals with the importance of supportive friends and family in a gay’s or lesbian’s life. The writers emphasize they’re not here to “shove their agenda down anyone’s throat,” but that they talk about this and fight the way they do because people are dying, either by attack or suicide. You’ve seen this in the news. Don’t pretend like that’s an over-exaggeration. There’s also an urging for straight people to be intentional about fostering a safe environment where gays can come out. They need to know they will receive love and acceptance, not bruises. Any normal human being would want that. We’re quite similar, really, and that’s what this section highlights next—that the LGBTQ community is not that different from the hetero group. This is important for us straight folk to remember, for as one of my gay friends told me once, “You know, people think we go around only thinking about sex one hundred percent of the time, but that’s incredibly ridiculous.” And a page notes how gays and lesbians cook breakfast, go to work, take out the trash, and take Mom to lunch just like anybody else. They’re not that different. The section also challenges the legitimacy of degayification ministries and how Harding (in all her wisdom) supports these endeavors as actually therapeutic (but research says otherwise about such ministries).
And that’s about it. I won’t really say anything else about the zine and will save my comments and thoughts for after this paragraph (you’re welcome to keep reading if you like) because right now you should really read the zine for yourself no matter who you are or what your affiliation to Harding is. Why? Because it’s a great starting point. Why is it only a starting point? Because hearing other people’s stories is good and all, and that is what HUQP’s goal is with this, but these are just faceless, nameless people on paper. They’re not part of your lives. But once you can begin to realize that this is not fiction, but reality, hopefully you’ll think twice before writing off a gay or lesbian before getting to know them. Because it is only upon letting someone into your life that you can see they bleed red blood just like you do, and it is upon seeing that we all hurt and suffer just like everyone else that it becomes very difficult to keep on vilifying them. Those of us who do keep on oppressing and belittling humanity after seeing someone hurting, well . . . I typically label those people with words I probably shouldn’t write here in such a public place as a blog. (Hypocrisy, I know, but just being transparent here; I realize I still have a lot to learn myself, especially when it comes to learning how to love those who use their hands for war.)
You can find the Harding University Queer Press’ zine at their website (www.huqueerpress.com), and you can e-mail them at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Here’s why the name Harding University Queer Press will irk the Harding administration: it automatically links the university to their pamphlet, which, if you know the university and her moral rigidity, is so very humorous, largely in part because Harding makes it very clear where they stand on homosexuality. Here’s a little background.
Harding students receive two handbooks: the student life handbook and the residence life handbook—the former dealing with all things related to being a student and the latter reviewing rules for dorm life. The latter says nothing about homosexuality. The former doesn’t, either, but it does say all forms of sexual immorality are prohibited, so being a religious university, it is automatically assumed that homosexuality falls under this stipulation. The automatic result for sexual immorality is expulsion; this is clearly stated.
Students understand this is always the case, with one exception. Students can stay if they submit themselves to therapy or counseling to show that they’re trying to get over their homosexual tendencies. Some people will read into that as re-orientation, or—as is more typically heard and less euphemistic—degayification. This is the thought. This, however, has been shown to be a joke in the therapy world because 1) it doesn’t even work, and 2) it also pushes the boundaries of what is ethically acceptable in the world of psychological therapy/counseling.
Interesting, though, is what the student handbook says about sexual harassment:
Harding University reaffirms the principle that students, faculty and staff have the right to be free from sex discrimination in the form of sexual harassment by any member of the academic community . . . Sexual harassment is generally understood to include a wide range of behaviors, from the actual coercing of sexual relations to the unwelcome or inappropriate emphasizing of sexual identity. This definition will be interpreted and applied consistent with Christian standards of behavior and conduct.
That bolded line is what gets me most. I would think Harding’s handling of their homosexual students would fall under that, but I guess not. I suppose that last sentence gives them license to act the way they do; perhaps it is considered “consistent with Christian standards of behavior and conduct” to start a witch hunt targeting gay students? Yes, that’s happened before. If you do not believe that, ask me, and I will refer you to people who can confirm that. I believe this counts as harassment, but perhaps I’m overreacting.
One of my best friends from Harding days told me he’s gay, but only informed me after he’d left the school. Knowing the school’s policy, I don’t blame him, and given some of the students’ attitudes towards homosexuality, I don’t blame him. Case in point, a friend of mine came out late last year with a Facebook status, and one of his “friends” from school eloquently commented with this (this being one of the nicer, calmer things he said):
You exemplify everything wrong with people who try to stand out just for standing out purposes. I hope you fail at most things you do because you are on the right track. You are on the right track.
I can’t imagine being in such a volatile position while at Harding, and quite honestly, if I had been in my friend’s shoes, I would have done the same as him—not told anybody. But there are other students braver than I, and this zine is the product of their intrepid moxie.
And so it’s in the hands of Harding students now, which is deliciously ironic in and of itself. Here’s the great thing about the zine: it puts people in an insane Catch-22. First off, the zine will just be sitting there, meaning the homosexual haters can’t use their typical seemingly failsafe complaint of, “They’re shoving this down our throats.” No, they’re not because the gays aren’t forcing anyone to pick it up. Second, though, the zine is readily available and easily accessible, meaning if they don’t take the initiative to read it, they are the ones solely at fault for not taking steps to reach out, listen, and reach a point of understanding with the gay brothers and lesbian sisters around them. In other words, the hatin’ straight folk can’t win. So they might as well just read it. Brilliant.
This post is getting long, so I’ll close with a brief synopsis of my reaction to the zine. First, it’s pretty bold in its writing, and what I mean by that is some of the stories, thoughts, et cetera will probably make some readers uncomfortable. But it’s important to reach out and try to see things from someone else’s perspective. This is how we grow. This is how we learn to love and not fight.
My first concern with the zine was that it was going to be angry and not written in love, and while the students writing the publication make it clear that they have been hurt and are fed up with it, overall it is written in a pretty non-confrontational way. Even the section on Dr. Brumfield’s Christian Home course—which probably had the highest potential for sounding attacking—focused its ire on the course material and not the man. You may say they are one in the same, but they’re not.
The zine also affords people the opportunity to listen, which they should do. It’s a chance to learn peoples’ stories, to understand their hurt and the impossible position much of our culture has put them in, and what we, as the heterosexual majority can do to reach out to them with hands of peace and not weapons of torment.
I do have some concerns, but they’re not about they zine; they’re about Harding and how she will respond. But I will post that tomorrow morning. This post has been long enough, and you have a zine to read. I hope you find it insightful, compelling, and the impetus for reaching out, should you be in need of doing so.