About 20 years ago, I was going to college in rural Ohio surrounded by conservative Christians at a school that still held weekly chapel meetings. I made a lot of connections with people and got heavily involved in the student senate. As time went on, I began to see the need for the campus to have an organization for LGBTQ students.
Even many people who felt they could be out of the closet in other contexts didn’t feel comfortable telling others on campus that they were not straight. Rumors circulated that students who were not heterosexual would be removed from school. Some who came out as gay had been driven from their fraternities. One student who made extra money as a dancer had the word “fag” burned into the carpet outside his dorm room door. Another was hit in the head with a piece of ice by someone yelling “dyke.” And someone who had a passion for voguing and who wore a golf skirt to golf class got so frustrated with the reactions that he left school. The situation was challenging.
Some advised that the school was not ready for a group. Others suggested that we pragmatically “pick our battles.” There were many reasons to fear that we could not make a difference and could be hurt in the process. Despite suggestions that we were not being realistic, a network of friends and allies had already formed. We had the support of several deans, professors, chaplains, many on the student senate, people from the school paper, and others. What was really missing was the courage to make a principled push for a more respectful community. Someone needed to take the lead.
We sent a proposal to recognize a campus organization for LGBTQ students to the student senate, and the campus quickly became polarized. Christian groups collected signatures on petitions claiming that the town would be destroyed by fire. Some people began to avoid me while others sought me out. A dean privately advised that for safety I should avoid taking the same way home every day. When the proposal came for a vote, over 200 students and an area reporter were at the student senate meeting. The proposal to have a group did not pass its first vote, and the news went over the AP wire.
We continued to make clear our support for the group by wearing rainbow bracelets, publishing letters to the editor, and creating displays for the student union. We called for a jeans day in which anyone who supported the group would wear jeans. In time, the idea of having a group on campus started to seem more ordinary, and the student senate recognized what’s now called “Open Doors.” At this time, the campus has multiple groups, hosts a drag show, and has protections against discrimination. Our principled push not only changed the campus but also encouraged me to question my own religious and political beliefs.
I share this story because it illustrates many important points. To call for change is an act of courage. In seeking recognition for our organization and pushing for a more respectful community, we had to prioritize our hopes rather than our fears. Right now, much of our society is caught in fear. Even some who call themselves “progressive” shrug along with tepid proposals and attempts to protect against further losses. Fear saps energy, keeps people isolated, encourages a self-centered outlook, and promotes a tough approach that lacks compassion. In an atmosphere of fear, a courageous call can inspire hope, connect people, and have a lasting impact. People with principles have power. What is “realistic” for our future is shaped by the choices we make and the actions we take.
Humanists have put forward a vision for respectful relationships among people and with the planet in documents like “Humanism and Its Aspirations.” Interfaith religious groups like the Parliament of World Religions and Network of Spiritual Progressives share similar ideals. As we make a principled push toward more thoughtful living, it’s not necessary to win every round. It is necessary to stick to our principles and stick together.
More information about the principles that many Humanists and some interfaith organizations support is available here:
The American Humanist Association
Parliament of World Religions
Network of Spiritual Progressives