It’s been nearly a decade since the Supreme Court of Canada upheld Trinity Western University’s (TWU) right to teach Christian values — even homophobic ones.
Nearly a decade since the court ruled the university’s teacher program graduates are entitled to hold “sexist, racist or homophobic beliefs” as long as they don’t act on them in the public school classrooms to which they might be assigned.
Central to the matter was a community covenant Trinity still obliges each student to sign upon admittance. Among other things, the declaration explicitly holds students responsible to uphold biblical teachings, which include no premarital sex and no homosexuality.
The BC College of Teachers had ordered all Trinity education students to take their final year at a non-religious university to ensure they wouldn’t bring outdated or homophobic beliefs into the classroom. Trinity objected.
“At the heart of the appeal is how to reconcile the religious freedoms of individuals wishing to attend TWU with the equality concerns of students in BC’s public school system,” the Supreme Court of Canada found.
Trinity was allowed to keep telling its students not to be gay while training BC teachers and has been doing so ever since.
But in reality there have always been gay students at TWU. They just went largely unrecognized, often closeted. Until now.
Starting last November, the counsellors in the university’s wellness centre sponsored a meeting of queer and questioning students after the student newspaper’s editor-in-chief, Jason Brandl, pitched the idea.
“Apparently they’d already been thinking about it,” says Brandl. “They just didn’t know how to connect students. Once we got a hold of them, everyone was kind of excited about it.”
Approximately half gay, half supporters, the group of about a dozen or so students has met every week since that first meeting in mid-November. Discussion topics are what one would expect for such a group: growing up in a conservative home, coming out, being gay and Christian. It’s essentially a safe environment for queer and questioning students and their friends to talk about their issues without fear of judgment.
“I haven’t found it to be a big deal,” says one of the group’s founding members, Bryan Sandberg. “When I first came here, I thought it would be, but after actually talking to people and having experiences with my friends and coming out to people, I haven’t found it to be a big problem for people here.”
TWU’s director of wellness, Kurt Lundberg, plays an advisory role. He says TWU should be playing a bigger role in supporting queer and questioning students.
Many of the students come to the group from a traditional Evangelical background. Some come from homes open to homosexuality and are very expressive about their sexuality. Others remain in the closet. But the most common question among group members is how to be true as a person and still maintain their faith.
“There’s the sense that, ‘I’m evil or bad because of this,’” says Lundberg, “and so it’s really the permission to find grace and acceptance that your sexual orientation doesn’t make you any less of a person, that God loves you just as you are.”
“I think there’s been an evolution of Trinity and what they believe in and what they hold core,” Brandl says.
While the group’s existence does reflect changing attitudes of students and staff, it still isn’t easy being gay at TWU. Brandl has spent a lot of one-on-one time with many campus colleagues since he came out in an editorial to the school last fall. He says when he speaks to people individually, most of his schoolmates can at least reach a level of understanding. At worst they can agree to disagree.
However, there remains a very vocal minority who accuse him of leading the school to hell.
“Whenever we bring up homosexuality in the paper,” he says, “I always get quite a few negative responses back — that we’re just trying to promote our agenda, that we don’t belong here, that we should go to another school.”
The group does not publicize its meeting times. In order to attend a meeting, one must sign up online or speak to a counsellor at the student wellness centre.
The university still requires students to sign the community covenant. However, Lundberg takes a conciliatory approach. He encourages students to talk about their issues. “We’re not here to say, ‘If you adhere to these standards you’re more Christian or a better person,’” he says. “We’re saying these are what we, as an institution, feel set the best foundation for your experience while here as a student.”