This school year has brought a reinvigorated debate on homosexuality at Principia, leading into the Principia board of trustees meeting this weekend to discuss, among other topics, the so-called homosexuality policy.
In some respects, the debate kicked off a year ago. The October 2012 issue of the Pilot featured a letter to the editor from Jeffrey C. Walter, a homosexual Principia alumnus who argued that the College made him feel ashamed of his sexual orientation, and that it needed healing. Walter wrote, “Let us focus our efforts not on weeding out those who are not the majority, but on helping every person, regardless of their sexual orientation, to cultivate their strongest connection to spirituality that is in integrity with their own heart. Is not this the true spirit of Christ?”
College President Jonathan Palmer wrote a letter in response to Walter that was also included in the issue. He explained the policy, saying that it is “consistent, we believe, with Mary Baker Eddy’s writings.” Palmer also cited quotes from the chapter on marriage in Science and Health, and used the definitions of “chastity” and “generation” to support the claim that “the human institution called marriage is only between a man and a woman.”
Later in his letter, Palmer wrote, “If Principia is to serve the Cause of Christian Science, it must seek to be as true as it can to the teachings of Christian Science.” His letter suggested that Principia’s current stance on homosexuality is the closest it can be to Christian Science teachings. In the letter and in recent interviews, however, Palmer has encouraged “both thoughtful prayer and active discussion on this topic.”
In the letter, the only instance Palmer referenced his personal opinion was regarding his desire for conversation on the topic. However, any time he discussed the merits of homosexuality, he referred to the views being expressed in “our” and “we” terms.
Last October, Palmer, cabinet members, the student body president and vice president, and a number of students discussed the policy. In these discussions, Palmer explained the policy, just as he did in his Pilot letter to Walter. Many students came to the conclusion that there was no immediate progress made on the issue, including sophomore Erica Suess.
“The homosexuality discussions last year left a sour taste in everyone’s mouth. It felt like the administrative representatives were so opposed to the idea that they didn’t hear a word we students said. I walked out of that room feeling like more negativity was created than positivity,” she said.
Other students had different views, however. “I think the discussions were good if judged by the criteria of listening to the other side,” senior Jamie Rybak said. “In terms of the policy, where we stand today remains the same as we did last year, but I think progress was made, and is still being made as we speak. Not all forms of progress are visible, or in the forms that we expect or wish to see.”
Palmer said in an interview last week that he was “disappointed that there weren’t more people” in attendance at these discussions, especially since a March 2013 Pilot poll indicated that almost half of the student body considers the homosexuality policy to be the most pressing issue on campus.
Last spring, a group of seven students and one postgraduate teaching intern started the “I Support Equality at Prin” campaign to “constructively deal with and finally abolish the homosexuality policy on campus,” as the campaign’s leaders wrote in an April 1 email to a select group of students. They organized a sit-in on the first floor of the School of Government during Week 12, in which about 120 students and others attended. The campaign’s Facebook page has over 650 likes, and a Change.org petition started by the group has over 1,200 supporters.
Although there is certainly more awareness of the issue on campus, no changes have occurred to the Principia Community Commitment (“Behaviors not in line with demonstrating spiritual dominion are … sexual activity [including pre-marital or extra-marital sex, whether heterosexual or homosexual]”) and the policy listed on page 21 of the Blue Pages (“Homosexual activity includes dating, public displays of affection, and sexual relations”).
In the interview last week, Palmer said that last spring’s activism promoted “productive conversation,” and that he felt that its purpose was “talking as much as we possibly could and turning each other to Christian Science.”
“I felt enriched by those conversations,” he added.
Four members of the Principia board of trustees met with the equality campaign’s leaders in the spring, along with individuals who supported the policy remaining in place. The trustees also met in September and released the following statement:
“With many good thoughts shared by and the prayerful support of students, alumni, and friends, the Board had a very positive discussion of this question. While the Board did not reach a conclusion, we did agree that all future consideration of this issue will be in the context of the important subject of moral purity in all relationships. It will not be focused on just one type of sensual behavior. The change will appropriately elevate the conversation to a more spiritual basis. The Board will continue to prayerfully and thoughtfully listen for direction on this question and appreciates the ongoing support of students, alumni, and friends.”
Some students advocating for change in the policy have been active this semester, calling their campaign the Gay-Straight Alliance, which has no official status as a club or group. Senior Lauren Furbush said at the Sept. 23 meeting of the GSA that the above statement from the trustees “seems like a step towards progress.”
The GSA effort is led by 10 students – one senior, one sophomore and eight freshmen – and seeks to “create a safe space for all on this campus, and to take steps towards changing the current discriminatory policies,” as the group’s leaders wrote in a Sept. 23 email to 73 students.
“We’re asking – frankly, demanding,” said freshman Austin Moyle of the group’s efforts. Citing his belief that some students – including those receiving scholarships – are scared to speak out against the administration, he said that the GSA’s words and actions are protected by the free speech policy on page 23 of the Blue Pages, as long as they abide by the following principles for responsible speech: “spiritual foundation, tone, balance, accountability, mediation.” However, Furbush said “we can’t control 120 people,” and that GSA members need to “do a good job at being loving.”
As of press time, there are currently 100 members of the GSA’s Facebook group. Moyle said 35 people attended the GSA’s first meeting on Sept. 23, while 25 attended the Oct. 14 meeting. “Those who came were only the ones who could come. There are other clubs who meet at this same time who are members but can’t make it,” he added.
Sophomore Angela Lupher said there are 30 to 40 active members of the GSA, but that it was a “pretty arbitrary” estimate. Freshman Holt Perkins had a “conservative estimate” of 60 members, but also cited that the GSA has supporters in alumni and other Christian Scientists outside of the Principia community. GSA support is impossible to verify independently, however.
Those in support of keeping the policy in place are not organized as a campus group, though Principia alumni have been coming together to discuss the issue. This may explain why these individuals have not been as visible as those aligned with the GSA’s activities.
Several students, a professor and two deans declined to comment on the policy debate for this article, while others would only speak if they could remain anonymous. Junior Shamus Jarvis speculated why some might not want to be quoted by name: “Anyone in a minority, it’s safe to assume they will be concerned about how they will be perceived.”
Freshman Connor Coyne agreed. “They feel a little timid in a sense because if they speak about their opinions, they’re going to be viewed differently. They’re going to be viewed as, ‘Oh, these people don’t support being gay,’ which is not the discussion at all,” he said.
“For the most part, people are open to discussion,” Coyne continued. “When it starts to turn into a debate or big argument, that’s where it feels like you’re being judged or hurt.”
Although Jarvis said he was neither opposed to nor supportive of the policy, he said that with regards to last year’s protests, he became “turned off by the activism as soon as it became antagonistic against Prin.”
GSA members have said in meetings and interviews that “Principia actively discriminates” and that “Prin needs to get with the times.” Perkins said that “if this policy doesn’t change, this is not our right place.” Jarvis said that many of the GSA’s arguments, in his view, are based in gut feeling rather than reason, and that they are “an emotional attack on Prin’s morality.”
“One thing that I find just kind of boring about continuing this discussion is that nobody is providing new arguments,” Jarvis said. “It seems they’re just using the same emotional appeals.”
In discussing the commonly-used argument that “we need to love everyone,” he said, “I have trouble with that because the policy does not translate to ‘we are not going to love homosexuals.’ … That argument holds no weight in my eyes.”
A sophomore who wished to remain anonymous had a harsher view of the GSA’s methods of protest, including drawing red equals signs on hands. In an Oct. 14 Facebook message to the Pilot, he wrote, “coloring on your hands in an act of what you like to think of as ‘civil disobedience’ is relatively ineffective. Contacting the trustees with your concerns is the proper route to take.” He also spoke about the use of the term “civil disobedience” as a description for the GSA’s protests, writing that comparing them to the discrimination faced by African-Americans during the 1960s civil rights movement is “gross and disrespectful.” He suggested that community members read Policies Eight, 21 and 22 in order to get a wider concept of how the policies work, and “why the equality movement’s actions are invalid from the start.”
A freshman who wished to remain anonymous wrote the following in an Oct. 5 email to the Pilot: “While I am grateful for the opportunity to give a different viewpoint on homosexuality, I am concerned on how I would be treated by students on campus after the article is printed. The bullying that takes place by many people that are pro-homosexuality is not something I want to deal with at college. We all have a right to our opinion, and I continue to respect individuals that see things differently than me.”
While discussing the purpose of the GSA during its Sept. 23 meeting, Perkins said, “You can pray about something for a long time, but if you don’t take action along with that prayer, you’re not going to get anywhere.” Moyle echoed this, saying that “the movement is the physical manifestation of the prayer” and that “policy is a physical manifestation of thought, and the thought needs to change.”
Lupher has a different view of this. She said that some GSA members believe human policy equals human action, while others think its actions have to be entirely prayer-based. Regardless, she said all GSA members act within their “highest sense of right.”
“We’re one of the most loving movements,” she added.
Furbush and Perkins have both suggested that they would transfer out of Principia if the policy was not changed during their times here. When asked if it would be selfish to leave Principia and abandon his activism, Perkins said it would be “unselfish … I love Principia and want everyone to love Principia.” He later equated one’s decision to stay or leave to their “endurance.”
Sophomore Curtis Atkins supports reversing the policy, but said, “I feel like some people are doing it for their own recognition, like ‘I want to be the one to change the policy.’”
Palmer told the Pilot last week that he feels he is not an active part of the current policy debate this semester. The last communication between him and the GSA was on Sept. 23, which marked the last email sent from Perkins to Palmer. Perkins said he did not want Palmer to attend the first GSA meeting on Sept. 23 because “we didn’t want students to feel scared about asking questions or talking.”
When asked further about this, Perkins said, “We feel like the administration is not on our side with this issue right now, and we don’t want that kind of environment with them being there. I’m pretty fed up.”
In anticipation of the trustees meeting this weekend, Steve Sydness, chairman of the trustees, provided the Pilot with the following statement via email this past Wednesday:
“The homosexuality question remains on the Board’s agenda. We appreciate the many articulate and thoughtful communications we have received from members of the Principia community on this matter. As one would suspect, those on both sides of the question feel certain they are correct.
“At our most recent meeting, the Board agreed that all future consideration of this issue will be in the context of moral purity in all relationships, rather than a focus on one type of sensual behavior. This shift in focus appropriately elevates the conversation to a more spiritual basis.
“The Board understands the keen interest many have in this question, and we trust the Principia community understands this is not the only issue before the Board. While we have not established a timeline for a decision, we will continue to work with the Administration in considering what is in the best interests of Principia.”