Opinion: Intentional exclusion evident to LGBT+ students

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“To live wholeheartedly.” This mission permeates the structure of Calvin College, from the layout of dorms and scheduling of events to the student-faculty relationships that are fostered by departments, athletic teams and campus offices. Calvin produces academically excellent students, yes, but the outcomes of a Calvin education are meant to span into every facet of our lives.

That’s the very premise of our living-learning communities, or the recent introduction of Calvin LifeWork. It’s part of the bond that students have with their professors; it’s why we often consult our advisors not just about our courses, but about jobs, housing, family, relationships; it’s what we admire about staff members who invest wholly in our flourishing. At Calvin, we know we aren’t just attaining a remarkable education. We’re surrounded by models of a thriving faculty and staff, most of whom, in addition to their formal job descriptions, directly interact with, encourage and inspire students.

This model allows us to encounter people from many backgrounds, skilled in many areas, with many ambitions and ideas and life experiences. These non-student members of the Calvin community are ostensibly models of the school’s mission, interactive portraits of what it’s like to think deeply, to act justly and, most evident in our regular encounters, to live wholeheartedly.

As the campus discusses increasing diversity and inclusion in faculty and staff, the critical relationship between students and others they encounter on campus forms a strong leg of the argument in favor of expanding current efforts. When we consider the importance of staff and faculty influence on students’ perception of “to live wholeheartedly,” we confront a tough reality. While representation among staff and faculty for many student demographics is critically low, one student group entirely absent, and few people seem willing to say anything about it.

LGBT+ have likely attended Calvin College for as long as it has been an institution. In recent years, we have been more able to express ourselves openly, with less fear of retaliation from the college administration. An estimated 1 in 20 Calvin students identify in some way as LGBT+. With a student body of 3,840, that translates to approximately 192 LGBT+ students on campus. Both the staff and faculty handbooks utilize the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States to use “religious faith, confessional commitments and church membership as conditions of employment for faculty and administrators with faculty status.” The handbook employs this same clause as a caveat to the policy “to assure equal opportunity … without regard to marital status or sexual orientation” by aligning with the Christian Reformed Church’s understanding of marriage as “a covenantal union between a man and a woman.”

Most of the theological stances required by Calvin have not been brought to the table for debate in the Christian Reformed Church in recent years. By contrast, its theology of sexuality and gender identity has been heavily considered, and further discussion is expected soon. But regardless of the theological underpinnings of this staff and faculty stipulation, the policy regarding sexual orientation and gender identity leaves 192 students — five percent of the student body — without a model of “to live wholeheartedly.”

This orchestrated absence of symbols who embody the ideal to which Calvin students strive is not unnoticed among LGBT+ students. It leaves us as second-rate constituents, tuition-payers and enrollment numbers and sometimes even picture-perfect graduates who make inspiring stories for prospective students — but never staff members, never professors. If we want to see ourselves, to see who we can become, to prepare for life, we must look outside of this institution. In the midst of the heteronormative culture of this campus, 1 in 20 students are told that we do not belong here, that we cannot have a future here. This institution can equip us academically to become specialists in our field, world-class experts, agents of renewal in the world. It cannot provide for us any template, comfort or concept of our lives in the same way that it can for cisgender, heterosexual students. And it cannot equip us to work, in any capacity, for Calvin College.

The good news is, LGBT+ students find each other. We connect with alumni. We form our own bonds, because we know we can expect no facilitation for such bonds from Calvin. We work hard for each other, but we hope, in the future, the institution will work hard for us, too.