By Micah McIntyre
After being disbanded at the beginning of the 2018-19 academic year, Wheaton’s group for students who identify as LGBTQ was re-approved by the administration in January and moved from the Chaplain’s Office to Student Wellness.
The new agreement between Refuge student leaders and the administration allows for Refuge to operate independently from other groups in the Chaplain’s Office that focus on sexual sanctity. The decision to reinstate Refuge comes in response to student reservations about replacing Refuge with curriculum-based groups such as In Terra Pax and Refuge Discipleship Small Groups (DSG).
Members of the previous Refuge, many of whom declined to go on the record for this story, described feeling more open to discuss issues relating to sexuality after the official group was disbanded, even as they missed the structural support that the Chaplain’s Office provided. Student feedback prompted Vice President of Student Development Paul Chelsen and the administration to re-examine the decision.
“We decided to restructure Refuge in response to student need and interest,” Chelsen said. “It is important for Refuge to be available as a supportive resource for students who are personally navigating same sex sexuality and/or gender identity while also introducing students to additional college resources for support and discipleship.”
Refuge student leaders initially lobbied to move the group to the Student Activities Office (SAO), but would not have been able to limit membership to students who identify as LGBTQ if the move had been approved. As a result, they amended their guiding document to fit under Student Wellness in the Student Development division due to Title IX protections.
Refuge intake appointments and meetings are now entirely student-led, with Chelsen acting as their advisor. This was a change many students had been pushing for in the time since the group was first disbanded and is unprecedented for groups in Student Care. Student leaders say they hope that student-led meetings will create a space that is less curricular than the previous program because of the open discussions and supportive community it allows. Ed Vere, a senior and member of the group, said he feels that the representation of LGBTQ students in the Wheaton community has been lacking for years and believes this structure can simultaneously give them support and help the rest of the community engage these topics alongside them.
Many of the students expected Refuge to be approved at the start of the fall semester. Co-Presidents Lydia Thomas and Sam Ruff, juniors at Wheaton, said they are grateful that the school has been willing to negotiate a new structure but have been discouraged by how long it has taken to get the group re-approved.
“This process has shown me how much work it is to get things back up and running once they have been shut down and how much pushback there is indirectly from bureaucratic red tape that makes meetings and plans go through so slowly,” said Ruff.
“The return of Refuge means that we demonstrated a lot through our actions in working with the school,” said Thomas. “There will be things we disagree about, but we’re working to try and put it together.”
Thomas and Ruff began meeting with Chelsen in July and continued to do so for the next few months. They have also met with a number of other faculty and staff in the administration and even sat in on a Senior Advisory Council (SAC) meeting. Chelsen says it has been a long and tiring process, which is not out of the ordinary for major institutional changes, but believes it was necessary to reorganize the group properly.
“Although I was hoping to be finished in time for classes to begin in the fall semester 2019, I am not surprised it has taken until the beginning of the spring semester 2020,” said Chelsen. “There were many topics we needed to collaboratively discuss and agree upon in order to encourage students to honor the College’s biblical convictions about human sexuality while also providing a caring resource for students who can sometimes experience isolation at Wheaton.”
The process of reinstating Refuge involved discussions about specific terminology in official on-campus advertising sponsored by the group. Students in Refuge pushed for the acronym “LGBTQ,” which stands for “Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender or Queer/ Questioning.” Alternatively, the administration proposed terms like Same-Sex Attraction (SSA), Gender in Questioning (GIQ), and ultimately approved these terms for the group’s advertising use on fliers that were posted around campus at the beginning of the spring semester.
For all parties involved, officially endorsing the proposed terms makes a statement about theology, history and identity. Chelsen and other members of the administration felt that the acronym LGBTQ carries cultural associations that do not align with the values of the school.
However, Ruff and Thomas feel the terminology approved by the administration refers back to the church’s history of treating its LGBTQ members poorly. According to Ruff, the acronyms SSA and GIQ do not accurately represent the members of the group and students in Refuge rarely call themselves by the school’s proposed names. “Terms like ‘non-heterosexual’ are an identity by privation. In other words, they are an identity by what’s not there, or what’s lacking even,” said Ruff. “We don’t want to be defined by what we’re not. We don’t want to be called anything that has been imposed upon us to put us in a box for people that are not like us.”
Associate Professor of Christian Formation and Ministry Barrett McRay was one faculty member the group initially asked to be their advisor. He was designated as an official faculty resource for Refuge students during the approval process, but ultimately could not advise the group because he was not involved with Student Care. In an email interview, McRay said, “Wheaton and any other institution that bears the name ‘Christian’ must address who is part of our ‘we’ and who gets to decide that. If a community is to be a welcoming group of people who truly show hospitality to all those invited to be part of the ‘we,’ then it is imperative that all are given a place within that community where they are at home and have a voice.”
“When we imagine Wheaton, we don’t imagine queer people in it,” said Vere. “Refuge is an invitation to reform our imagination of our community. We want to help you because it affects us when you don’t think about us — it affects the way we see ourselves. God doesn’t see us as invisible.”