LGBTQ+ students and allies organize advocacy events in wake of controversy


Abigail Ham

Since the announcement of the reasoning for the CSR split, members of the Calvin community have worked together to advocate for LGBTQ+ rights.

More than 50 students, alumni and Center for Social Research employees lined the hall outside the provost and president’s offices Wednesday morning, waving pride flags while three current students and an alumna met with Provost Noah Toly.

Sophomore Isaac Seiler, senior Izzy Nunez, junior Mica Walter-Rooks and alumna Grace Swanson were meeting with the provost on the morning of April 6 to share their stories and deliver a petition advocating for the end of Calvin’s employment policies against same-sex marriage.

The petition, titled “Stop LGBTQ+ discrimination at Calvin University,” was created by alumnae Lindsay Owens and Grace Swanson on March 21. As of 8:20 a.m. on Wednesday, it had gathered 2,861 signatures in two weeks.

Owens told Chimes she was motivated by the recent controversy surrounding the CSR’s split from Calvin, uncertainties surrounding assistant professor of social work Joe Kuilema’s reappointment, and former CSR employee Nicole Sweda’s resignation. Sweda’s queer marriage was at the center of the CSR’s departure.

“There are so many stories of good people, people who are deeply loved and valued by God, people with gifts, talents, and contributions that make Calvin University a better place — who are fired, silenced, and painfully forced out of this community,” Owens said. “I don’t want to see this happen again. I want Calvin to do better.”

According to Owens, the immediate goal of the petition was to put pressure on administrators to change policies against same-sex marriage. “While that goal is a long-shot, it is not impossible,” she said.

“My primary goal [for the meeting] was to listen and gain a better understanding of the experiences and perspectives shared by the students in the room. I was grateful they were willing to share those with me,” Toly told Chimes. “I hope the students left with the impression that I welcome conversation and that I am open to learning more about their experiences and perspectives.”

For Seiler, listening isn’t enough. “There seems to be a divide between the real human suffering going on at Calvin and how the administration is acting. The meeting was amicable, and the provost listened to our stories, but there were no signs of any desire to adopt any of the changes we recommended in the petition,” Seiler said in an email to Chimes.

“It really feels to me that the university leadership is using the denomination as kind of a front to be like, ‘OK, we can’t make this change because of the denomination,’” Seiler said in a follow-up interview. 

The petition and meeting with the provost weren’t the only ways that members of the Calvin community have been advocating for LGBTQ+ rights on campus. Efforts to support LGBTQ+ students and allies at Calvin have united students, alumni, faculty and staff alike. Efforts have ranged from small signs like rainbow ribbons and stickers, to unauthorized public flag displays, grassroots fundraisers and off-campus special events. 

The spark

Seiler was among the first to initiate advocacy efforts to support LGBTQ+ students in the wake of news about the motivations behind the CSR’s split. He started a GroupMe chat for students supportive of LGBTQ+ advocacy efforts, on Tuesday, March 28, after the Campus Involvement and Leadership office removed an unauthorized pride flag display. The group chat has since gained about 200 members.

“I think a lot of the structure was already there; there was a lot of frustration in the LGBTQ+ community at Calvin that people have kind of already bonded over and wanted to do something,” Seiler said. 

“You’ve spent your whole life taking care of yourself and holding yourself up and then you meet other people who have done the same thing and you can lean on each other. It’s very encouraging,” junior Josiah Bostrom, who joined Seiler’s group chat, said. 

Seiler said it has been inspiring to see students from different backgrounds and with different experiences coming together. He told Chimes he’s also grateful for the efforts of alumni and staff, including Owens and Swanson, as well as Dr. Aaron Yore-VanOosterhout, a member of Calvin’s Institutional Review Board who recently resigned.  

Something to look forward to 

Advocacy efforts began on March 21, after Chimes reported on Sweda’s decision to quit CSR. Seiler and Sweda then partnered to begin a GoFundMe aimed at offering financial support to queer students on campus.

“Some students – students that I know – if they come out to their parents or if they act in a certain way, if they are, I think, true to themselves, they’ll get cut off financially,” Seiler said. “I think the heart behind the GoFundMe was to kind of come alongside students like that.”

According to Sweda, the GoFundMe serves as a resource for students who find it difficult to navigate their time at Calvin due to their sexual orientation and may need financial support, as leaving the university is far more difficult than one may believe.

“When a story like mine goes public, I think there’s a lot of people whose main response is ’Well, why don’t queer students just go somewhere else?,’” Sweda said. “And I think that’s missing like a whole heart of a lot of people’s stories.”

Through this fundraiser, Sweda said their goal is to support LGTBQ+ students in any way they may need: ranging from covering for groceries to potentially transferring schools if needed. She hopes that it will be something for LGBTQ+ students to look forward to. 

Fundraising and rainbow pins

Though recent advocacy efforts have been primarily student-driven, some members of faculty, like social work professor Rachel Venema, have joined in.

Her immediate response to news of human sexuality’s role in the CSR’s split was to contact Vice President Sarah Visser and University Pastor Mary Hulst. “What’s your plan for supporting students during this crisis? So many students are devastated. So many students come to Calvin because they believe we are a safe place and so many are not feeling safe right now,” Venema said.

Then Venema started a fundraising campaign to support Sweda while she is unemployed. 

“Nicole is someone who I know and love dearly, and it pains me to see what has taken place by an institution to which she has contributed in countless ways. Setting up the fundraiser is a small way to communicate to Nicole how much she is valued and to demonstrate care through financial support,” Venema said in an email to Chimes

In hopes of showing support for current LGBTQ+ students, Venema also brought rainbow pins — a tradition from her church — to campus.

Junior Ellie Jones, who studies social work and is part of the Sexual and Gender Awareness group, was one of the students who helped Venema make the pins. Initially, Venema bought the material and Jones brought them to SAGA, but the idea quickly caught on and soon other professors and students started buying ribbons, making pins, and distributing them.

“There is extensive evidence that points to the negative physical and mental health consequences of an environment that not only does not affirm identities but also perpetuates a climate of isolation and fear. Wearing a rainbow pin is one way that I can communicate my belief in the inherent dignity and worth of all people, and the love of God that is wide and deep,” Venema said. 

“Keep Kuilema” 

For one professor in particular,  students’ advocacy efforts have been more personal.

In addition to the petition presented to Toly on Wednesday, Seiler started a petition titled “Keep Kuilema” in collaboration with Sweda. 

Kuilema officiated the Sweda’s wedding last October, and his reappointment was delayed from the normal schedule this spring. A decision on his employment status is expected at the board of trustees meetings on April 20-22.

As of Friday morning, the petition had gathered 1,896 signatures in one week. In addition to the petition, Seiler and other student advocates created and distributed “Keep Kuilema” stickers over the past week. They have also been campaigning on social media to spread awareness of the assistant professor’s situation as he awaits word on his reappointment. 

“Joe Kuilema is one of the best examples of Calvin University’s motto to ‘Think deeply, act justly, and live wholeheartedly as Christ’s agent of renewal in the world,’” Seiler and Sweda wrote in the “Keep Kuilema” petition. 

“How can we not retain someone that consistently is broadening people’s worldviews for the better?” Sweda said. “I think that’s doing students and faculty and staff at Calvin a disservice.” 

A community effort

“To see yourself represented and to hear yourself represented is an incredibly powerful thing,” Nunez told Chimes. Along with Sweda and Seiler, Nunez planned an open mic night for LGBTQ+ Calvin students, alumni and allies.

The event, held at Books & Mortar on Friday, April 8, drew about 100 people and featured six LGBTQ+ student artists. 

Seiler told Chimes he intended the event to be a celebration of the ongoing advocacy efforts students have been a part of in the last couple of weeks. In the event, attendees shared poems, songs, and stories that described their experience being LGBTQ+. 

Collaboration has been key to advocacy efforts. “It’s been a group effort and like, truly a village, you know,” Nunez said. “But that’s what the church is and what it should be, is just like rallying around each other, like helping because isn’t that what we’re all called to do? Is help”

“I know I am called to love my neighbor, whether I agree with them or not, whether they believe exactly the same way as I do, I am called to love. That’s our call as a Christian community,” Venema said.