Calvin social work professor Joe Kuilema officiated Annica and Nicole Sweda’s wedding in October 2021. The couple’s relationship was at the heart of the Center for Social Research’s split with Calvin. (Photo courtesy Nicole Sweda)
Calvin social work professor Joe Kuilema officiated Annica and Nicole Sweda’s wedding in October 2021. The couple’s relationship was at the heart of the Center for Social Research’s split with Calvin. (Photo courtesy Nicole Sweda)

‘I’m not going to be ashamed’: Queer CSR employee quits to speak freely about split from Calvin

March 21, 2022

Nicole Sweda didn’t know what to expect when she received an email from the provost’s office on Jan. 24 asking to meet the next day. As a full-time research associate at the Center for Social Research, she worried that perhaps one of the student research assistants she supervised had gotten themselves into trouble.

Although it had crossed her mind, she hardly thought it was possible that her marriage, a queer relationship, could be the reason the university’s chief academic officer wanted to speak with her.

“I was really nervous going into the meeting. I was honestly just trying not to have a panic attack the entire morning,” Sweda told Chimes in an exclusive interview.

I’m not going to be ashamed for being queer, I’m not going to be ashamed for being married to Annica”

When she arrived for the meeting, she was greeted by the provost, the university’s director of human resources, and the dean tasked with overseeing centers and institutes.

The meeting was brief. After beginning with prayer, the provost asked Sweda two questions: Had she been married to Annica Steen (now Sweda), a woman, since the fall of 2021, and had the couple been living together since May 2020.

Sweda answered “yes” on both accounts.

“Once they asked me those questions, I was very calm because I have nothing to hide,” Sweda said, pausing to think. “I have nothing to hide, and at the end of the day they can paint me in any picture they want to, but I’m not going to be ashamed for being queer, I’m not going to be ashamed for being married to Annica. If they had fired me that day, that would have been fine by me.”

But she wasn’t fired that day. Instead, as Chimes earlier reported, Provost Noah Toly and CSR Director Neil Carlson arranged for the research institute to become a separate legal entity from the university – an entity that could fully embrace the CSR’s desires to be inclusive and affirming of LGBTQ+ employees. Not wanting to cause further issues for the CSR while it remains at Calvin, Sweda quit her job on Monday, March 7.

“I quit to talk freely about this without any fear of repercussions at my job, but also for them, quite frankly,” she said, adding that she may plan to return once the CSR has successfully separated from Calvin.

The Center for Social Research plans to become an independent organization by April 30, 2022. (Harm Venhuizen)

Calvin’s policies on human sexuality clearly prohibit sexual relations outside of marriage, which the Christian Reformed Church, and subsequently the university, only recognize as “a covenantal union between a man and a woman.”

Under such policies, an employee in a same-sex marriage would be fired, according to comment from the provost and Andy George, director of human resources. 

Similar policies apply to students, according to Becki Simpson, director of residence life, though students are much less likely to be married. “Adherence to the student conduct code is an important part of our expectations for all students, no matter their role or position,” she said when asked about how policies regarding human sexuality might affect student employment.

A frequently-asked-questions document published on Calvin’s website under the Sexuality Series event further explains the complicated middle-ground the university attempts to stand on in issues of human sexuality. 

The document emphasizes the value of a “caring and diverse community” and notes that derogatory speech, especially based on sexual orientation, is prohibited. It also details all the ways in which Calvin strives to create a community that accepts people of all sexual orientations and gender identities – so long as they don’t engage in sexual relations outside of a heterosexual marriage – an action the student conduct code considers sexual misconduct.

As a queer student at Calvin, Sweda became familiar with the university’s stance on sexuality. But she was anything but prepared when she first entered college after graduating from a large public high school in Rochester, Michigan.

It’s like just walking through a minefield and hoping you don’t hit a landmine”

“It wasn’t abnormal that people would come out. It wasn’t abnormal that there were queer relationships – not to say that they were fully accepted, but they just kind of were and no one really said anything … It was sort of like, ‘Yeah, now we can move on and get on with it,’” Sweda said of her high school experience. “So, I sort of came to Calvin thinking it would be similar, which is not true at all. I think most queer students at Calvin realize they’re queer sometime in college.”

Sweda was already openly queer. She came out to her parents years before coming to Calvin and began dating her future spouse in the fall of her junior year of high school.

When it came to sexual orientation and finding community, Nicole and Annica Sweda had radically different college experiences.

“My experience was a violent contrast to what she was having at Calvin,” Annica Sweda, who graduated from Grand Valley State University, said. “It was hard.”

On the couple’s three-year dating anniversary, both tried to celebrate the occasion with on-campus LGBTQ+ groups. Annica shared the anniversary with GVSU’s First-year Queer Alliance and recalled being received with oohs and aahs and even being asked to show pictures and talk about how they’d met.

Nicole Sweda shared news of the anniversary with Sexuality and Gender Awareness, Calvin’s LGBTQ+ student organization, and said she was met with silence and awkward stares. She never went back to another of SAGA’s meetings.

I think the picture that’s painted of the way LGBTQ+ students are treated on campus is not accurate, and I’d rather they’d just say that”

“It’s like just walking through a minefield and hoping you don’t hit a landmine,” Nicole Sweda said. “It’s really on queer students to figure out who is safe to talk to and who is a welcoming presence. Nobody is going to do that for you.”

In her undergraduate years, Nicole Sweda navigated that minefield by becoming close with professors who were affirming of her sexual identity. One in particular was social work professor Joe Kuilema.

When the couple got engaged and planned their wedding for Oct. 15, 2021, they asked Kuilema to officiate.

“We talked pretty in depth with Joe when we asked him to officiate the wedding and said, ‘Hey, we want you to do this for a number of reasons, but we know it might just be an outright no,’” Nicole Sweda said. “And that was fine. We felt like that would be fine and we would be happy we at least asked.”

But Kuilema said yes, despite the issues that might arise due to the university’s stance on marriage.

Nicole and Annica Sweda were married on Oct. 15, 2021. A number of Calvin professors and staff members were in attendance. (Photo courtesy Nicole Sweda)

It’s unclear what repercussions Kuilema now faces, but sources told Chimes that his reappointment decision, normally due before the board of trustees in January, has been delayed. Kuilema declined to speak with reporters.

In 2018, Kuilema’s tenure appointment was not approved by the board of trustees, despite unanimous recommendation from the Professional Status Committee. At the time, some members of the university questioned whether or not his support for LGBTQ+ causes and students played a role.

“There’s this hard switch from when you’re a student to when you’ve graduated that any façade of support – and I do think it’s a façade for students on campus – any part of that is gone with the snap of a finger when you’re no longer a student and you’re not paying money to be there,” said Nicole Sweda of Calvin’s positions on LGBTQ+ issues.

“I want Calvin to be honest. I think the picture that’s painted of the way LGBTQ+ students are treated on campus is not accurate, and I’d rather they’d just say that,” Nicole Sweda said. “I would not have come to Calvin if I knew the kinds of things that were going to happen to me and what was going on. And I don’t think other people would, either.”

Chimes’ Hadassa Ribeiro contributed to this report.

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  • D

    David BruiniusJun 15, 2022 at 1:11 am

    This was correct. Marriage is between a man and women. As Christians we should not support people to live ungodly lives. Just like we condone other sins the sin of homosexuality should not be encouraged or promoted.

    Reply
  • J

    John WilliamsonApr 3, 2022 at 3:13 pm

    I can’t wait to protest Calvin’s bigotry. Whoever the hell runs this school is an utter fool and snake.

    John / Moose

    Reply
    • A

      Anne DykstraApr 6, 2022 at 9:57 pm

      You aren’t forced to be associated with Calvin.

      Reply
  • E

    EdwardMar 21, 2022 at 9:05 pm

    Nicole is absolutely right; Calvin should be more deliberate in expressing it’s policies and principals regarding homosexuality. Calvin belongs to the CRC, and it should boldly hold to the denomination’s stance on homosexuality. Calvin makes no apologies for its stance on pre-marital sex, which it states is a sin akin to homosexual actions (I agree). I guess, in the minds of the administrators, that stance doesn’t lower admissions quite like a stance against homosexuality would.

    I do not understand why the biblical model seems to be so far removed from Calvin’s practice. Consider for a moment Christ’s interaction with the woman about to be stoned (who we are told explicitly is promiscuous). There is undoubtedly love and care shown to her, with heavy emphasis placed on how the rest of her community shunned her (and was actively trying to kill her). But there is a command that follows this love, as Christ tells her to “go and sin no more.” That ought to be Calvin’s example.

    As it stands, conservative Calvin alum are unwilling to send their children to a school that flirts with endorsing homosexuality, while those who are sympathetic to/a part of the LGBTQ+ community won’t send their kids to Calvin due to it not making grand enough overtures to the cause. The writing is on the wall, and Calvin’s dwindling admissions demonstrate this. If Calvin continues its attempt to please everyone, it will please no one and simply cease to be.

    I genuinely am sad to see Calvin’s LGBTQ+ students endure hardships because of the fake progressivism Calvin pushes. It seems like they flirt with what they really have no intention of supporting. And for what? Money? Shameful.

    Reply
  • R

    Rev. Dr. Mara Joy Norden (class of 2001)Mar 21, 2022 at 5:00 pm

    The kingdom of heaven is breaking though with the courage of Nicole, Annica and Professor Kuilema. Calvin and the CRC need to open their eyes to the witness of these three and the many others they’ve wrongly marginalized: God’s love is always bigger and wider than religious rules can imagine.

    Reply
  • D

    Dan WiniarskiMar 21, 2022 at 1:46 pm

    As an officebearer in the Christian Reformed Church, I pray that Calvin will take a bold, courageous stand to affirm the Truth of Scripture, and honor God’s Holy design for marriage and human sexuality. Only then can we be a light of testimony to a world seduced by darkness.

    For too long some at Calvin have flirted with the lies of the social justice / woke revisionist movement. Be hot, or be cold. Do, or do not. The mushy middle is no good for anybody.

    Reply
    • N

      NoMar 22, 2022 at 3:10 pm

      LOL.

      Reply
  • A

    Alison VanDeWalkerMar 21, 2022 at 1:00 pm

    These events are so unfortunate and disappointing, but not surprising. Calvin University has been two-faced for far too long. IT’S TIME FOR CHANGE. Wake up Calvin.

    On the other hand – thank you, Nicole, for sharing your story! We love and support you and Annica! S/O to professor Kuilema as well! And thanks to Chimes for telling these important stories.

    Reply
  • A

    AuroraMar 21, 2022 at 12:36 pm

    I left Calvin and transferred to GVSU for this exact reason, and I have several friends who did the same. We attended orientation with high hopes that we would be accepted, and when class really started we were met with noting but opposition and were outright ignored.

    Reply
  • K

    Kathryn LeeMar 21, 2022 at 11:37 am

    I commend Nicole for her forthrightness regarding Calvin’s policies. I also commend Professor Kuilema for his support of Nicole and Annica. It is clear that the sort of ‘welcomeing but not affirming’ policies of Calvin result in people being hurt and the institution being tied up in knots. I am a member of the LGBTQ community and am a full professor at Christian university. Like Calvin, we also have convoluted policies, but thank goodness no statement regarding the definition of marriage. That said, our hiring policy does make clear that members of the LGBTQ community are completely safe here, completely welcome. Perhaps someday these institutions will be fully welcoming, fully affirming and safe spaces for LGBTQ persons. Thank you Nicole, Annica, and Prof. Kuilema.

    Reply
  • J

    JoeMar 21, 2022 at 11:02 am

    Hey, since when is pride a good thing? You should be open to the reality that most Christians disagree with you on this, maybe, just maybe they are right and have been interpreting God’s word accurately. There is no Biblical endorsement, condolence, or justification for the life course you have taken, indeed there is Biblical condemnation. You can call that hateful, but then it’s between you and God not you and me. So go ahead, call the Bible hateful, call it outdated, call it disgusting. That doesn’t make it wrong.
    Whose definitions of right and wrong are you using anyway? Start from the Bible. God created you for a purpose, confess your sin, repent and believe on the Lord Jesus Christ as the changer in your life. God loves us to move us out of our sin into a wonderful relationship with him. I’m praying that you can truly know that and change your life to reflect the repentance and submission God demands.
    It is very sad that Professor Kuilema would endorse and encourage you in this pursuit. Calvin needs to take a positive stand on Biblical sexuality.

    Reply
    • S

      SamMar 21, 2022 at 4:32 pm

      Maybe one way is right and one way is wrong. To know which is the truth? Only God. Our job on earth was never to judge or tell others they aren’t accepted for who they are. Our Christ is one who chose those society deemed as outcasts to do his work. He didn’t chose the pharisees or the religious leaders or those who thought they knew the law and what was right and wrong. Furthermore, God ended up choosing Noah the drunkard and Samson a womanizer to carry out his work. Why can’t someone who identifies apart of the LGBTQ+ group work for a Christian organization? Whether it’s not a sin or is a sin is not a choice for us to make. I’m not here saying one way or another on what’s right and wrong. Take the plank out of our own eyes first before we try to take the speck out of another. I ask only that myself, you, and the entire Calvin community open our eyes and see that we are all sinners and to cast someone out because of something we believe is wrong. Jesus welcomed those that are oppressed and we should too.

      Reply
  • A

    aMar 21, 2022 at 10:17 am

    Shame on Calvin College. Avoiding legal repercussions by intimidating Sweda into quitting is despicable.

    Reply
    • P

      PaulMar 21, 2022 at 11:47 pm

      Calvin has hid the light of the gospel under the proverbial bushel to garner the support of liberals:
      “25 Who changed the truth of God into a lie, and worshipped and served the creature more than the Creator, who is blessed for ever. Amen.

      26 For this cause God gave them up unto vile affections: for even their women did change the natural use into that which is against nature:

      27 And likewise also the men, leaving the natural use of the woman, burned in their lust one toward another; men with men working that which is unseemly, and receiving in themselves that recompence of their error which was meet.” (Romans 1:25-27)

      Do we need to get more clear?

      The book of Jude spells out the punishment of Sodomy:

      “Even as Sodom and Gomorrha, and the cities about them in like manner, giving themselves over to fornication, and going after strange flesh, are set forth for an example, suffering the vengeance of eternal fire.”

      You can choose to ignore those passages, but they’re still there and they are still true. Besides, our own hearts testify against us that homosexuality and lesbianisim are wrong, unnatural and rebellious against God.

      Let’s not ignore the clear admonishing of God’s word but turn from the evil of this sin and flee it. Not endorsing it, judging righteous judgement.

      Now all this doesn’t mean I don’t feel bad for these people. Nor does it mean that I somehow hate them. I feel the same way about this as I would any other sin and my own as well. Sin is not something people should be proud about or married into. Further sin is not an identity, at least not for a Christian.

      I don’t want to come across sounding perfect here because I’m not. It’s because of the amazing experience of God’s grace, cleansing me from the horrible reality of my past sin filled life that I am writing. I struggle with sin daily. I’m praying for these people and all you who read this, take this rebuke with grace.

      The fool despises reproof, the wise man learns and corrects his course. Be that wise man, flee your sins and run to Jesus feet.

      Reply
      • N

        NoMar 22, 2022 at 3:12 pm

        TL;dnr.

        Reply