Harding University Queer Press Series: The Issue of Force

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.

One thing I noticed the blogosphere really gravitated towards after the zine came out was a collective confusion over, “Why would anyone who’s gay want to go to Harding?” Several former students responded on comment boards and noted that some kids—gay and straight alike—have parents who dangle the following ultimatum over their heads: “We won’t pay for college unless you go to a Christian school,” or some will even go as far to say, “We won’t pay for college unless it’s Harding.”

This makes me uncomfortable because it feels like parental indoctrination and because if a kid got into an academically-stronger university his parents won’t pay for, his hand is kind of played for him. But what makes me most uncomfortable is when I hear students saying they’re “forced” to go to Harding. This is not true, and everybody knows it.

Example: let’s pretend I’m eighteen years old, my parents have offered to pay for Harding and only Harding, and I’m homosexual. I got into other schools, but man, you know what? Someone else paying for college is pretty tempting, so I decide to buckle down and go to Harding. As sometimes happens, you don’t really realize just how stringent Harding is until you’re actually a student there. Let’s assume my gay self suddenly can’t take it anymore. I begin to lament to everyone how 1) my parents are oppressive because they forced me to go here, and 2) I’m stuck at this university.

To anyone echoing such convictions: both those statements are not true.

First, the primary claim. Your parents are not oppressive, or at the very least, not near as oppressive as you’re making them out to be. Is it fair how they somewhat forced or strongly influenced your hand when it came to your educational decision? No, it is not. I think that’s pretty low, actually. But the fact of the matter is this: they are paying for your college education. There’s not some invisible mandate saying parents have to do that. Such an offer is a pretty legitimate deal and an unbelievable blessing you’ve got coming your way. If you don’t believe me, I have a wealth of friends to whom I could refer you; they are currently anywhere from $40,000 to $60,000 up to their necks in debt, and they would be more than willing to tell you how not enthusiastic they are about such numbers choking them. Those friends of mine would have been thrilled to be in your position.

Second, the primary claim again. You are not forced. Awkward position your parents put you in aside, you always have the ability and right to refuse such financial assistance. If you were accepted to a better school and really didn’t want to sacrifice the academic opportunity, you should have gone with it, even if that would’ve have meant paying for school on your own. Or if you were afraid you would have had to come out of the closet to your parents in telling them you don’t want to go to Harding, well . . . that would have been a tough position to be in as well, and you alone had to decide where to take your stand. But remember, no one held a gun to your head making you go to Harding (I hope).

Third, the secondary claim. You are never stuck. If you are a gay student who has now been at Harding for one or two years and simply can’t take it anymore, do not sit there and pout as if you are in a prison. I will tell you the same thing I tell my friends who complain about being stuck at their dead-end job: “You can leave at any time.” Yes, there is probably a host of reasons keeping you from taking such a bold move: 1) it would require turning down your parents’ financial assistance; 2) it could require coming out of the closet so as to explain your decision, which could alienate you from your parents forever, and there could be an estrangement ripple effect throughout your family; 3) you could lose friends in the process; 4) you would have to go through the annoying process of transferring college credits to a new site of academia; and 5) you may have to choose a less solid university—like a community college—in order to finish your bachelor’s in an affordable way, but even that would not be the end of the world, for some of my friends have lived out this very scenario, and it turned out fine for them.

That’s a lot to take into consideration. That’s a lot capable of weighing you down. But as intense as all that is, you still are not stuck. It may be that embracing those five things (and I’m sure there are more I haven’t even considered) will be what you need to do in order to feel truly liberated. It may be that through such a trial much personal good will come to you. If you feel it is important to take such a stand, I encourage you to do it. Do not do it timidly; do it boldly.

Now, at this point some people may criticize me and accuse me of saying students should just bail and not try to bring about change. That is not what I’m saying at all. I desire to see Harding change some of her policies, and I want to see students be a force for such change, but let’s say Harding doesn’t change some of her policies. Even though that would be frustrating, our indignation towards her can only go so far, and I don’t even like typing that, but it’s true.

Because as exasperating as it may be, Harding is a private institution and, therefore, is allowed to make her rules the way she wants to. I’m not saying that it is right; I’m simply saying they have the right—just like it isn’t right when the Boy Scouts of America blatantly discriminates against homosexuals, but as a private organization they can make such rules. It wasn’t right for a private school here in Nashville to turn down my application for an English teacher position simply because I’m a different religious denomination than their school affiliates itself with, but since they’re a private institution, there’s nothing I can do there.

And it’s when you see some things can’t be changed (at least, not in your time) you begin to receive the realization it may be wiser for you to leave. I don’t know that there’s anything wrong with that. Some people may call you out for “giving up,” some may think you’re overreacting, but in the end it’s your choice. If anything, you would cease to be giving Harding money, which could be considered a small victory since the administration sure does love those tuition dollars. But even so, I don’t necessarily advocate bailing out from “stuck” moments.

Unfortunately, sometimes in life we are put in situations we do not necessarily enjoy. We may feel stuck, and everything may very well appear to corroborate that feeling. There were times I felt like that at Harding. There have been times I’ve felt like that since getting a bachelor’s degree and working in an ice cream shop in Nashville for the last ten months. I expect I will have many other such “stuck” moments in life; they are difficult, yet necessary, parts of our existence. And when faced with them, you have two options: you can stick around or you can bail. But the fact of the matter is such situations are ripe for periods of growth if you stick around.

That does not mean they are pleasant, but we usually come out of them stronger. I think this is what we see with HUQP’s zine. A good portion of the zine writers are current students who seem intent on continuing to call Harding their educational home. Good for them. It’s always easier to bail. I might even go so far as to say taking flight can be pretty shallow (depending on the situation, of course). Endure to the finish; it will define your character. If you feel, though, you must leave, you alone know what it will take to push you in that direction. Hold your head high, and go where you feel like God is telling you to go. No one should criticize you for that.

In all of this, though, it must be remembered we will never find our “ideal” place. Even if I one day discover my dream job, it will contain facets which irk me. It’s unavoidable. Just like I will never find a perfect church, perfect school, perfect job, marry a wife who’s perfect, or raise kids who will turn out perfect, so I should never anticipate new experiences or budding opportunities to somehow hit a perfect ten on every line of my assessment checklist.

So when we do encounter something that rubs us the wrong way, there’s a rational way to approach it. Since it’s been the topic of this entire month, I’ll reference Harding’s policies on homosexuality. If you’re a gay student and offended by some of the administrative approaches, your first task is to stop and ask yourself, “Why am I upset?” If you can’t answer that question with reason, then you’re probably just impetuous and overreacting; however, if you can calmly and rationally explicate why the situation disappoints you, then there’s something good here upon which you can build.

From there you have to ask yourself, “Is this a nonissue?” Just because you can clearly draw out the ways in which this situation frustrates you doesn’t mean it’s actually something demanding change. For all you know, you may very well be a party of one. In that case, there’s a good chance your rational argument—as good as it may be—may not matter anymore because in the end you’re probably just being indignant. But if this scenario with which you find yourself dissatisfied seems to infringe upon the very tenants of things of good repute that uphold, encourage, and love humanity (i.e., the ministry of Christ) and others are noticing what you’re noticing, then you may have an issue on your hands that isn’t inconsequential and could very well use some mitigation.

And it’s at that point you can decide to go to work on the issue or bail. But if you go with the former and decide to take up the gauntlet of attempting to effect change, you must keep in mind your efforts can only go so far in that perfection will not be tasted. We can always make situations better, but we have to keep in mind our own limitations. HUQP’s zine is great in that it can hopefully begin to bring some good, but the net of accomplishment and restoration can only be cast so wide. That’s not pessimism; it’s just realism. For example, racists will always exist; while the number of such discriminators will fluctuate, there will still always be those who single others out because of their race. You can take that sad truth and apply it to many other situations. It’s just part of living in a broken world.

But it doesn’t mean these aren’t good things to try and do. Several people have told me this month they didn’t see the point of writing the zine and wondered what good there was in even doing it. My answer is very simple: there is tremendous power in the written word and the sharing of personal stories. It is when we hear peoples’ stories that we see they are human just like us, which doesn’t happen often enough for the homosexual community. That is something to get worked up about. That is not a nonissue.

And so the hope is to try and make the situation as good as you possibly can in a world where perfection is a nonexistent. There are always two types of people who respond to such a daunting task. One group is so overwhelmed by the work to be done and the fact that they’ll never truly “finish it,” they never even try. The other group is energized by the promise of, “There will always be work to do.” If you want a good example of this, Jesus said, “You will always have the poor with you.” Some people pass out from exhaustion at the mere idea of that; others lace up their boots and run into the thick of it without ever looking back.

Neither of those groups is wrong or right. If a student feels the need to leave Harding, we should wish him the best and hope he finds what he’s looking for. If a student stays and feels the need to try and make things better, we should encourage him to endure faithfully. And perhaps that’s what the LGBTQ community needs more than anything: people simply supporting them. To have such a network of love is to get a glimpse of the Maker. Encouragement is what keeps us going when only fumes remain in the reserves of our tank. To be without it makes this world a pitiful place to live, and the gays and lesbians have been without support and encouragement for so long as to where they’re finally saying, “We’ve had enough of that.”

I think any of us can confidently say we’d do the same if in their shoes, which is synonymous with saying we’d wish people would do the same for us if we were, in fact, in their shoes. To show that sympathetic love epitomizes what it is to fulfill the role of a “neighbor” in flesh and blood, which will be the topic of the last post in this series.

Much love.

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1 comment
  1. Nelson, I started reading a book today that (so far) sounds so much like what you’ve been talking about with all of this. It’s called “Embracing Grace: A Gospel For All Of Us” by Scot McKnight. Maybe you’ve read it or even referenced it in your writing. I don’t embrace all of his words but here are a few that I like: “Such walls don’t separate between believers and unbelievers, but invite everyone to come to the table to listen to Jesus. Such walls don’t separate between denominations, between young and old, between the poor and the wealthy, between the morally struggling and good old-fashioned upright people, between men and women, between ethnic groups and cultural climates. Instead, permeable walls permit entrance and exit without notice and without judgment. A come-as-you-are culture is not indiscriminate, but it creates a church where grace is the ruling paradigm. It asks people to tell their story and promises them safety and love. When permeable walls are found, honesty is found-sometimes frank, but honesty nonetheless…What this generation is asking to see proclaimed by performance is grace. People today want to get to the bottom of things, in fact to the bottom of their own things. They want something that finds what is really there and tells them there is a way for what is really there to be restored to what it once was or what it can be. They want something that speaks to their condition and that can set them free from the chaos this world confronts them with. They want something that will draw them closer to God and to others and lead them to a life that is good for the world. And they want to both hear it and see it. This come-as-you-are generation wants to see if the Church really does love them.”
    Something to think about!

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