Friday, April 04, 2008

"That School Where You Can't be Gay"

I'm gonna get on the soapbox.

It's been a frustrating week. I teach at King's University College, and we've been in the news every day from Sunday till today (and who knows about tomorrow and the next day). In 1991, Delwyn Vriend was dismissed from his position as a lab instructor at King's, ostensibly (at least this is the way the media puts it) "for being gay." Ten years ago this month, the government of Alberta (which refused to support Vriend's appeal) lost a Charter case on the matter. So now the rights of gays and lesbians not to be discriminated against by their employers is protected. And I think that's a wonderful thing.

There's a whole complex history behind the events which led up to Vriend's firing, including the increasing visibility of GLBT people in society and in the church, the desire of the local legal community for a Charter "test case" with which to challenge the Alberta Government's lack of recognition of the rights of GLBT people, and Vriend's own contention that the Christian community--and King's in particular--take a clear stand affirming the acceptance of GLBTs in the church. Adding to the complexity is the fact that King's was (and to an extent still is) supported by hard-working Dutch immigrants in Alberta and British Columbia (sometimes in stuff I've read about the case, mis-named "Dutch Reform"). This is itself a diverse community defying the simplistic, Manichean categorizations so beloved by the mass media: politically progressive in some ways, and conservative in others. Our "left wing" and "right wing" distinctions, which owe too much to the culture-wars discourse of the US, simply don't fit here. And--I say this with great affection as a long-time observer though not "insider"--members of this community love to argue amongst themselves about controversial political and social matters!

It was this community of post-war Dutch immigrants that built a Christian school system, not based on the superiority of the Christian faith but on the need for a plurality of perspectives within the educational sector and for a robust Christian witness therein. Partly from its experience as outsider to the largely Anglo culture that ran the country in the 60s and 70s, it taught its children to honour and respect cultural differences. (As someone raised in the Ontario public system of that time, I can testify to the anemic space given to "otherness" in my own schooling). It was this that enabled members of this community to stand behind aboriginal peoples and their struggles with "development" of their lands in 1970s Alberta. Sharing a commitment to caring for the earth as given by the Creator, it dissented from the idea of "limitless progress" pressed by the Trudeau government. And it's a community that reaches out especially to the weakest in society. Go to most any Christian Reformed church and you'll see "differently-abled" people as fully participating members of the community, not pushed to the background.

Doubtless this community was at the time uncomfortable with the presence of gays and lesbians in the institutions it supported, especially when sexual orientation was foregrounded to the extent it reportedly was by Vriend. While on this particular issue, the community remains divided, I strongly believe that many if not most of its members will eventually move toward acceptance for GLBT people. This won't be because of some thin, woolly liberal idea of "tolerance" or "live and let live", however, but because of its own "thicker" (in the Geertzian sense) history of marginality, the memory still borne by members whose families hid Jews during the Second World War, and its faith in the One whose ministry consisted in the embrace of social outcasts.

In short, the community that made, and continues to make King's and all the things it does possible (see below) has been, and remains, a community in dialogue and in process. While I'm not in a position to judge the actions of the College at the time of the Vriend firing, it certainly would have been extremely difficult for King's to have acted in any other way. Things would be very different today, as our current president has said.

Anyway, the thing that has frustrated me this week is that King's--then and now--is dismissed with the "that's the place where you can't be gay" appellation. (These very words were actually spoken to me by a cabbie the first week I was here. When I pressed him, he said, "Oh we studied all that in high school".) Even behind those four words repeated again and again in the media ("dismissed for being gay") there's a whole lot unsaid. And it especially doesn't help when the Canadian Family Action Coalition stands up for you in the letters section of the local paper!

Vriend still has friends at King's, though I think even his strongest supporters would concede that the events were manipulated behind the scenes in order to bring about the famous case of Vriend vs. Alberta. King's was simply a means to an end, just as Vriend is now a "symbol" of something he ultimately didn't control. The College was not part of the court case and to my knowledge has never contested the results. I've not done any formal polling, but I've yet to hear anyone at King's say that the recognition of the rights of GLBT people to be protected under the law, and therefore the 1998 decision, was a bad thing. Quite to the contrary. In fact, while the court case was going on, Citizens for Public Justice (a Christian advocacy group with similar cultural, philosophical, and theological roots to King's), was producing a document advocating the full legal equality of gays and lesbians under the law.

King's itself is a diverse institution: we have students from North America and Latin America, the Caribbean, Africa, and Asia. Many are Christian of one sort or another, some are not (last I heard, the ratio was about 70-30). I've taught Muslims (some of whom were among my best students), Hindus, new agers, and agnostics at King's. I've taught straight and gay students, and never heard anything other than support for the latter from the faculty and support staff. Contrary to some reports, King's is not formally associated with the Christian Reformed (or any other) Church. In fact, our faculty represent the spectrum of Christian churches: Anglican, United Church, Baptist, Roman Catholic, Ukrainian Catholic, Quaker, Pentecostal, Presbyterian, and Lutheran. Oh, and of course we have a good representation of Christian Reformed folk too! It's true that King's has a (minimal) statement of faith, but there is no formal code of conduct concerning sexual orientation or other matters--aside from expectations concerning relations with colleagues and students (put simply, it's a no-no to become involved with a student... surely a good thing, no?). King's is far more concerned that faculty demonstrate an understanding of their scholarly vocation as part of Christian discipleship (and I've yet to meet a colleague who thinks that means advocating "free markets", "family values", "creationism", or "intelligent design"). Our faculty participate fully in the "mainstream" of their disciplines--one of our faculty members just received a prestigious national teaching award and another has just co-published a science textbook for use in Alberta's public high schools. Last year we attained the highest rating among the Globe and Mail-polled Universities, largely because of our small classes, innovative teaching methods, and the personal attention we give to students. Faculty also contribute to the cultural and artistic life of Edmonton, and share their expertise on environmental and other issues. My colleague in political science is currently researching the ideology behind Alberta's thirst to exploit its natural resources at any cost. My colleague in economics works with Thabo Mbeki's New African Development initiative in South Africa. My colleague in sociology is involved in the development of men's resources within the city of Edmonton. I could go on and on. Students are active proponents of social and environmental justice, both locally and globally, and our guests on campus from the local social justice community have included Michael Phair, the openly gay city counsellor who helped advocate in the Vriend case.

I've worked, in one capacity or another, at five "secular" universities, and I would rate the scholarly atmosphere at King's as highly as any of them. Indeed, the fact that faculty share a common sense of vocation and the same understanding of academic community as service to the creation (and in that way imaging the creator), as well as our size, means we are free, at least in my experience, of the competitiveness within and between disciplines that dogs larger and more ideologically diverse institutions. King's is such a good place to work and teach that I've applied for (and, thanks be to God, been given) tenure. So I'm in for the long run. And I'm excited about it!

I think we deserve better than to be called "that school where you can't be gay."


Anonymous said...

This is, indeed, undeserved opprobrium (mem to self, check whether opprobrium isn't always undeserved...); but it's just a microcosm of the calumny incurred and/or visited upon Christians at large (mem to self, should Christians ever be at large? discuss...)
You be well. And thanks for this very thoughtful and lucid post.

Doug Harink said...

Hi Steve,

On the weekend I read your blog on "That School...". In general I found it an excellent piece, giving a compelling and attractive "thick description" of a place like King's that many in the wider public simply do not have access to. I hope the blog is read widely, and I'm happy that "Tomorrow's Trust" picked it up and circulated it further. Anyone who hangs around here for a while will recognize the King's you describe far more than the caricatures that one gets from the media. Thanks!

I have a couple of questions. The first arises around the acronym GLBT. I am especially puzzled by the B(isexual). What does that term imply in the wider public discourse about sexuality? What would a Christian make of it? With regard to the wider public discourse it seems to mean that a person is equally sexually attracted to either sex, and might engage in sexual relations with either sex, according to choice. I suppose we must assume that a bisexual in the wider public, in so far as he or she has "rights" does in fact wish to engage in sexual relations with whomever he or she chooses, and probably does so. What is a Christian response to a bisexual person, if we assume (though not all Christians do) that sexual relations are reserved for monogamous covenanted relationships? Perhaps we might assume (if we affirm gay/lesbian covenanted partnerships) that the
bisexual person is the freest of all people (freedom being characterized as having the maximum number of "choices"), and is simply left with the decision to "pick one" partner, whether male or female. Or...? That's the first question: What does the "B" mean for Christians?

Second, you suggest that sometime down the road the majority of the King's community will move toward "acceptance of GLBT people." I think we are in good measure there already, if by "acceptance" you mean that we do not engage in anti-gay rhetoric, we welcome all persons to enrol in our university and classrooms, we treat all, regardless of sexual orientation,
with the grace of Christ, and we call all to life in Christ and the path of discipleship. But is that what you mean by "acceptance"? Or do you mean "affirmation" of the whole variety of sexual partnerships (perhaps "monogamous") implied in the acronym? If so, I would certainly hope and pray that King's does not move down that road. The affirmation of GLBT sexual partnerships is one of the greatest cultural icons of late
capitalism (ranking with Nike, Coke, McDonald's, etc), with sex as the most marketable of consumer products, and the maximization of sexual choices as the very definition of moral freedom. GLBT sexuality is a primary sacrament of the free market and capitalism. The "acceptance" and regularizing of it by the church (in gay "marriages" for example) is one of the clearest symbols of the church's willing capitulation to the consumer marketplace and its understanding of "freedom". So why would King's want to go down that road? Nothing "radical Christian left" there,
it seems to me.

In the whole area of sexuality, the church's resistance to the capitalist marketplace will require us to think in a more catholic, more sacramental way. We will have to ask, Of what fundamental theological mystery are GLBT sexual partnerships (or "marriages") a sacrament? Of what aspect of
creational or new creational reality are they a powerful symbol? How shall we deal with the fact that for Paul they are a "sacrament" of a disordered world subject to idolatry and the powers of sin and death? (Paul's analysis in Rom 1 is not biological, psychological, or sociological -- it is theological and sacramental.) What shall we make of the fact that in Matt. 19:3-12 and 1 Cor 7 sexuality attains its true end and freedom not through the maximization of sexual options, but through the radical disciplines of marital or celibate dedication to the kingdom, each difficult in its own way?

Well, those are some questions which your blog raised for me. I thought I would jot them down and send them to you, in the hopes that we might carry on our conversation from there. They are particularly lively in my mind as I anticipate the discussions of the St. Margaret's Consultation in Wpg.

Grace and peace,

Stephen Martin said...

Thanks for reading my piece, Doug. You pose some difficult questions for further thought. I haven't thought through the bisexual and transgendered side of GLBT (which is simply the nomenclature these days), except to say that--and I think this is an insight of Gerard Loughlin--these identities deconstruct the bipolar sexuality native to western culture. I do think there's some important thinking to be done there. You're right about the iconic nature of the GLBT image as part of consumer culture, though I don't think this automatically makes it theologically untenable. I have no idea what a theologically tenable construction of GLBT would be, however. Perhaps Loughlin and Ward might offer some clues.

The question of "reception" within the Dutch immigrant community and what this means... hmmm... I guess I want to avoid two things: (1) the easy cheesy "hate the sin but love the sinner idea" which is problematic especially where sexual identity is concerned, and (2) the liberal idea of the privatization of sexual identity, where the community decides it's "none of their business". Actually the Dutch immigrant community may well move to embrace privatization, which will mark its absorption into the nefarious ideology of "Canadian-ness". That would be too bad.

What I really wanted to do was to give a thick description of King's and the community that supports it, and to contest the stereotypes that seem prevalent.

Gordon said...

In your little comment above, you say that GBLT is simply the nomenclature of the day. You're about 15 years behind. It's now LGBTTQ, although I've seen it with yet more letters. Having the G first is patriarchal or phallocentric or militaristic or something. I have trouble keeping up.

Overall, it's a very good piece. However, I don't see the need to take cheap shots at "free markets and family values", and the Canadian Family Action Coalition. The first two are good things (if i had more time i'd list all the necessary caveats), and the third, the CFAC, like Greenpeace, Kairos, PETA, the Council of Canadians, the Canadian Taxpayers Federation, and even CPJ (in a lot of cases), has a few things to say, tends towards hyperbole at times, and often fails to take into account many legitimate considerations. Why do university types always feel that they have to run away from potential overlap with groups on the 'right' (and you're correct that 'right' and 'left' are problematic labels), while chasing the endorsement of the 'cool crowd' on the 'left'?

Stephen Martin said...

I appreciate your comment, Gordon. My observation stands, however. I have yet to speak to a colleague at King's who equates Christian discipleship with the advocacy of free markets or family values. And I don't care about pleasing the "cool left". They should, however, be adequately informed concerning what King's is about.