Harding University, the Gay Zine, and Freedom of Speech

This post is one in a continuing series for the month of March that aims to examine the American Church’s response to homosexuals in their midst, whether they be believers, agnostics, or atheists. This month’s series was spawned by the Harding University Queer Press publishing a zine on March 2 featuring the voices and stories of past and present LGBTQ students at Harding University in Searcy, Arkansas, my alma mater. The zine can be downloaded in its digital entirety at http://www.huqueerpress.com.

Okay, for starters, I found out this morning that students put a copy of the zine under each dorm room door last night, which is a tad unsettling to me. Initially I gave HUQP the benefit of the doubt in thinking it was a response to Harding blocking their website, but a friend of mine at Harding told me he’d been contacted a week ago about being one such every-dorm distributor, so this wasn’t a spur-of-the-moment plan. This is unsettling to me because one of the brilliant things about the zine (as I wrote yesterday) was its accessible, yet non-aggressive nature. That is obviously now modified by putting a copy of the zine under every door. You may argue with me for using the word “aggressive” and note, “They’re still not making anyone read it,” which is true, but such forward distribution seems (to me) to contradict the very subculture nature and underground purpose of zines. So, that said, look . . . the zine is still an extremely worthwhile read (no argument there), but in terms of this new development I have to say the word “brilliant” I used yesterday to adjective its distribution must be redacted now. I realize many would disagree with me. To each his/her own; we can agree to disagree. Moving on.

Yesterday’s post got to be too long, so I didn’t include my concerns, and I do have a few, but they aren’t about the zine; they’re about Harding and how she will respond because sadly my alma mater likes to silence voices with which she does not agree.

Just on a small scale of reference I’ll point to the internet. Anything pornographic is blocked, which is all well and good, but Harding also blocks sites that make them uncomfortable, whether that be morally or politically. Two that instantly come to mind are Urban Dictionary and The Onion. I don’t know if they still block those two sites, but they did for a time while I was a student.

But that’s just the internet. It spreads over to bigger things. For all of her love of American politics, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights, Harding has a befuddling knack for denying peoples’ freedom of speech. I have two examples.

First, junior year I wrote a blog for the admissions office to try and get high school students interested in coming to Harding—weekly posts giving a peek into life at the college written from interviews I conducted with students, faculty, and staff so as to get their honest opinions about Harding. I made sure to include an even amount of positive and negative perspectives people shared. After Christmas break, I was called into the admissions office to be informed they were firing me for the things I wrote; this went against our preliminary agreement where they stated if I began to write posts that toed the line, they would notify me, and I told them I would respectfully back off a little bit and only write happy things, but since they never told me I was pushing it, I just kept writing.

My supervisor sat across from me and, with a very scared look on his face, asked me to please not go around and write about this on my non-Harding blog or in an op-ed for the student newspaper. His exact plea was, “I have a wife and kid to think about.” It was like I was in a bad cop drama. (Side note: my supervisor is awesome; it was the admissions people forcing his hand; he and I are totally cool with one another, and I have no ill feelings towards him.) Harding knew she was in the wrong, and she was terrified of what I might do. I didn’t really care, so I honored their request . . . until now—reason being, I’m no longer a student and don’t really feel any loyalty to Harding as previous employer.

The other example of Harding’s aim to deny people freedom of speech came a year ago during the spring semester when a group of students organized a weekend seminar called Peace by Piece. A host of speakers were going to come in and speak on issues such as intentional communities, philosophy, holistic living, sustainable economics and agriculture, and (of course) peace, all with a religious backdrop. It may be that the biggest issue Harding had was with one of the speakers being a female priest, but whatever the reason my former university went back on their promise of guaranteeing Peace by Piece could be hosted on her campus. On top of that, posters for the seminar were not allowed to be put up on campus, and no announcements for the upcoming intellectual weekend could be made in chapel. Harding administrative officials could also never be reached for comment on why they were acting so shady, which naturally only made them look more cold.

Harding has an uncanny propensity for making controversial decisions and then trying to hide behind them without having to explain herself. This is true of my admissions blog. I was told, “It’s not that you necessarily wrote anything evil; we just feel this isn’t a very good fit.” They never actually explained what I did wrong.

Both instances have me firmly convinced Harding is terrified of her students. In my personal example they were scared to death I might publicize the questionable way in which they terminated my employment and how that might reflect on them. With Peace by Piece Harding didn’t know what to do with a group of students creating a weekend devoted to discussing radical Christianity, issues of doubt, and social justice. Both my blog and Peace by Piece shared a parallelism in that they dabbled in ambiguity and not black and whites. I believe a big problem Harding had with my blog was that it didn’t emphasize that life at Harding is always great one hundred percent of the time. Peace by Piece did away with the stark lines drawn in the sand by American Christianity, took on a deconstructionist’s view, and decided to question that which we’ve held onto for so long as a means to the end of living more like Christ and his disciples did. And such inculcation of ambiguities is too much for Harding.

But this zine is something different. Homosexuality? Harding doesn’t even like to reference that word. They had a chapel (I think it was junior year) about “same-sex attraction,” and never once was the word “homosexuality” spoken. Trust me, I counted. The tally was zero. It was as if they didn’t want to verbally acknowledge and, thus, legitimize its existence.

True to form, hours after HUQP’s zine was leaked yesterday Harding blocked the group’s website from being accessed by their servers. Students are perfectly capable of going to local coffee shops and using their internet to get to HUQP’s site, so Harding can’t win. What is her purpose with the actions she takes? I can’t figure it out.

But I’m afraid it won’t stop there. Harding, as mentioned in the previous post, has started witch hunts looking for her gay students before. Will it happen again? These young men and women who wrote this zine are very bold, very brave, but are their days at Harding numbered (that is, if the school roots them out of anonymity)? I fear tremendously for these intrepid students, and so I am constantly in prayer that the administration responds with a spirit of grace and understanding and not brash hatred steeped in fear. The blocking of their website is not a good start. I don’t doubt administrative heads met yesterday and are meeting today to discuss this zine.

Why is all of this important to me? On a religious side it killed me being at a school “devoted” to Christ and seeing no freedom in the Holy Spirit . . . ever. If there were ever snippets of it, you would see it in your fellow students, but rarely (if ever) from the administration’s actions.

As you may have gathered from the first paragraph, the rest of this month (and longer if needed) will be devoted to this very subject. I’m all too aware of peoples’ inclination for maintaining indecorous language with one another when this topic comes up, so I will be monitoring comments much more closely than usual on here. If you can’t be respectful, I won’t respond to your comment, but I won’t delete your comment, choosing to instead let its brilliant impropriety speak for itself and show the true rhythms of your heart. I also won’t guarantee a timely response to your comments on my end of things, for I do not live with internet (all in an effort to simplify my life). But I assure you I will get to your comment when I can, let it gestate in my mind, and make as thoughtful a response as I can.

If articles of this type aren’t your cup of tea, there is no offense taken. No one’s holding a gun to your head asking to read this blog. But if you have, do, and continue to read, I am grateful. It’s nice to know every now and then that this isn’t completely pointless.

And I would strongly urge you all to read the zine if you still haven’t—even if you are not a current or former student of Harding University. Sure, if you call her your alma mater or current academic circuit, reading the zine will be more poignant for you, but even the outsider will glean something from reading its pages. And it’s not even that this zine’s aim is to make you change your mind. I believe it is to be a precursor to action. Literature, for centuries, has been faithful in playing such a role in the lives of the marginalized.

Much love.

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4 comments
  1. I’ve been trying to follow along on various blogs and on Twitter, and this is a very reasoned take on the censorship situation. I went to Harding from 2002-2006 and had the same kind of reaction to the never-ending on-campus censorship. (Urban Dictionary, really? I think even Facebook was blocked until my senior year.) I suppose the administration and I have always had a fundamental disagreement about the level of control that HU should try to exercise over her students.

    As for HUQP itself, I’m concerned that those behind it are perhaps being pushy enough that they will not get the “conversation” going the way they probably wanted. It’s certainly a delicate line to walk, but putting one under every door is perhaps not the wisest step. It has a certain kind of “trolling” feel to it, but maybe that’s just my reaction. Regardless, there’s no denying that they should have a voice.

    They have put the administration in a really difficult position, as you said. People are going to read it. Unlike 20 (or even 10) years ago, they can’t stay ahead of #chapeltweet and the constant flow of information. Blocking the site was a poor, yet entirely predictable choice. It will be very interesting to see how this plays out, and I will be reading along as you continue the series.

    • Nelson Shake said:

      John,

      Many friends and I who are straight allies with the cause are afraid the point of the zine is being missed . . . on both sides. There is a high element of grace needed immediately . . . from both sides.

      HUQP should have a voice, undoubtedly. But a voice implies talking, which implies conversation. I don’t know if it’s going to get to that point, though. There is fault on both sides for that.

      Much of what you say I have already written in my upcoming post on grace, an article I deem far more important than the previous two I’ve written.

      Thank you for your thoughtful comments, John. I appreciate your wisdom.

  2. Andrew said:

    This is perhaps the best approach I have heard to the situation. I am a current Harding and student and am deeply concerned with what could happen if this garners national attention.

    There is already petitioning, posters, and chalk on the Benson steps.

    A popular quote is being thrown around all over Facebook and all over the grounds of Harding: “I don’t agree with what you have to say, but I’ll defend to death your right to say it” -Voltaire

    • Nelson Shake said:

      Oh Voltaire . . . much wiser than the rest it would seem. If only more people would live out such wisdom as is contained in that quote. Thank you for sharing it, Andrew!

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