On Oct. 11, an anonymous group of LGBTQ allies and students organized a walking protest to “strike out queerphobia” at Wheaton College, and to show support for a nationwide protest against LGBTQ discrimination, according to an Oct. 3 Instagram post by @queeratwheaton. The date of the protest corresponded with National Coming Out Day, which was inaugurated in 1988 by a psychologist and an LGBTQ rights activist.
The Instagram account, also anonymous and unaffiliated with the college, called for followers to join in the event alongside nationwide protests against schools that have opted out of protecting LGBTQ Title IX rights, which include equal treatment and access to educational opportunities.
Unlike the other religious schools whose policies the nationwide march was protesting, Wheaton legally protects LGBTQ students from discrimination through Title IX. But the event organizers said they wanted to show solidarity with the nationwide effort while also advocating for cultural and theological reforms at Wheaton.
The statement from @queeratwheaton about the march laid out three additional requests directed at Wheaton College specifically: “eliminating the condemnation of ‘homosexual behavior’ in the Community Covenant; hosting three to five Side-A [queer-affirming] chapel speakers every academic year; and creating a student-chosen committee that reckons with the queerphobia in our Wheaton College history.”
Eighteen students and one Wheaton resident attended the walking protest from 1:15 to 3 p.m., with others filtered in and out along the pre-planned route that began at Edman Chapel, migrated to Adams Park, and then along the public sidewalks surrounding campus.
A small handful of Wheaton students who heard about the event through Instagram came to Edman Chapel to voice their opposition, while several college faculty and staff members accompanied the group at a distance, including Bob Norris, chief of Public Safety, and Vice President of Student Development Paul Chelsen. “I went out of my desire to listen, observe and learn,” Chelsen said, “and out of my concern for the wellbeing of all participants.”
Chaplain Angulus Wilson also made a brief appearance at the beginning of the protest. “He gave me a hug,” senior English major Jessie Wright said, nearly moved to tears. “He called me daughter.”
Wright, who offered to speak at the march after seeing the Instagram post, became the de facto leader of the protest since the event organizers remained anonymous. Wright gave opening remarks at Adams Park and closed the demonstration in prayer.
According to Wright, the leaders of the nationwide Strike Out Queerphobia event contacted @queeratwheaton in the weeks prior, asking them to consider bringing the demonstration to Wheaton’s campus. Wright said that after a @queeratwheaton Instagram story post, she and a group of LGBTQ allies and students exchanged numbers and started planning.
Two organizations collaborated in the planning of Strike Out Queerphobia: The Black Menaces, an advocacy group founded by five Brigham Young University students; and the Religious Exemptions Accountability Project (REAP), an organization that defends LGBTQ students at Title IX-exempt religious colleges through civil rights litigation and public policy.
According to the Black Menaces website, protesters on more than 100 campuses nationwide participated in the call for an end to LGBTQ exemptions from Title IX rights protections and overall discrimination of LGBTQ students in higher education. The Wheaton protest organizers said they responded to the movement in solidarity with those schools.
Refuge, a college-sponsored Student Wellness group, meets regularly with Chelsen and undergrad students navigating same-sex attraction or gender identity. Refuge also has a Discipleship Small Group (DSG) overseen by the Chaplain’s Office. The student cabinet of Refuge did not support the Oct. 11 protest.
“We were concerned about the safety risk it posed to students who participated and to LGBTQ+ students on campus,” said freshman English major Mack Ibrahim, who serves as the director of marketing and communications and cabinet member of Refuge.
Additionally, while the Refuge cabinet expressed agreement that LGBTQ students have a right to safety on campus, they didn’t feel that the protest’s aims applied to Wheaton, as the college already recognizes LGBTQ students’ Title IX rights.
The protest organizers, though, said that they were seeking changes beyond legal protection at Wheaton.
In the “Official Convictions Regarding Human Sexuality,” a student development document drafted by the administration in 2021 that expands in greater detail upon the sexuality guidelines in the Community Covenant, the college dictates that Christians are to “live in obedience to God’s plan for human sexuality as celibate single persons or as persons faithfully married to someone of the opposite sex.” This theological position, which has been adhered to since the college’s founding and is consonant with a traditional understanding of what the Bible teaches about human sexuality, affects much of Wheaton College’s policy in the Community Covenant, which all students must sign upon registering for classes each semester.
The Student Handbook specifies that same-sex dating relationships fall under the umbrella of prohibited sexual behavior, and evidence of such observed or reported behavior will be responded to “with grace-filled correction and spiritual accountability.”
It is this institutional culture that the protestors want to change. Both the anonymous Instagram account administrator and those present at the march were vocal about their support for students at Wheaton who feel stifled by this culture.
“We also want to raise awareness that our queer siblings at Wheaton College have a community ready and willing to advocate for them,” @queeratwheaton said in its statement.
Scarlett Tule, cabinet member of Unidad Cristiana and a junior English major, said that she made a stack of posters for the march because she wanted to help support the protest as an ally. She grew up in a small Pentecostal church which was theologically Side-B, the belief that following Christ means affirming gay identity while eschewing gay sexual behavior. When her step-aunt came out to the church, Tule says, everyone shut her out of the community.
“They still said they loved her even though they never showed her any love when she came out,” Tule said. “It caused a lot of anger in my heart to see that kind of behavior. Especially in a church that I had held so close to my heart.”
While that bitter memory is part of the reason Tule decided to join the Oct. 11 protests, she added that she believes that all human beings, regardless of their beliefs or sexuality, should be protected from sexual orientation-based discrimination.
“It’s not a question for me,” Tule said.
Stories like Tule’s inspired Wright to get involved with the Strike Out Queerphobia march at Wheaton.
During her speech, in a tree-shaded public space just west of the Wheaton Public Library on Seminary Avenue, Wright stepped up onto the green fountain in the middle of the park, looked first to the sky, then to her fellow protestors, and began to speak. “We are living proof that Christianity and queerness are not at odds with one other,” Wright said. “It is our responsibility to point our queerphobic siblings in Christ back to the source. We follow a God who flips temple tables in the face of injustice. We will follow their lead.” She then led the group in four minutes of silence to honor those who “had to endure four long years [of Wheaton undergrad] not being able to freely exist for the way that they loved and identified.”
After the four minutes of silence, Wright instructed the group, “We are going to walk back to campus. And we’re going to walk around campus. Because we can’t walk on campus.”
Students were unable to march on campus due to rule 14 of the Speech, Public Expression and Public Assembly Policy of the Wheaton Student Handbook. This rule requires public assembly organizers to collaborate with a Student Government board member and a Student Development Division Director to establish a time and a place for any student-organized public assembly.
Chelsen said that the organizers did not contact the administration to make a request to hold the protest on campus.
Wright, who is already out on campus as bisexual, has been connected to Wheaton for most of her life, having gone to Wheaton Grammar school, Wheaton Christian Academy and now Wheaton College. She said being queer and religious at the same time has been difficult for her.
“As much as there are religious people who will tell you that you can’t be queer because it’s against the Bible, you also have to deal with that tension inside yourself and with your own identity,” Wright said.
Wright said she hopes that as a result of the protest, queer freshmen who are scared to come out will hear about this protest and know that people on campus are fighting for them.
“I know that when I was a freshman, that’s what I would have needed,” Wright said.
Wright expressed her support for Refuge as a campus organization. “We’ve been in conversation with Refuge as we’ve been planning this protest,” Wright said. She said that the leaders of Refuge acknowledged their inability to support the protest publicly, but encouraged her to point students to them as a resource for questions around sexuality.
Dane Bothun, senior math major and leader of the Jim Elliot Fellowship, a student organization that evangelizes in Chicago on Saturdays, attended the event to pray for the protesters and voice his opposition.
“[We prayed] for repentance among students, for earnest love for the lost, compassion towards them. We were praying for rain, I suppose,” Bothun said. “I didn’t really want this event to happen.”
Bothun said he attended the protest “to have honest conversations and engage with the people there,” regarding his conviction that the Bible describes a clear standard of sexuality for Christians to follow.
“They were pretty clear about believing opposite to us,” said Alani Oyola, a junior English and urban studies major who was one of the de-facto leaders of the Strike Out event.
“I came to march today out of my own desire to seek and find truth and to reconcile the idea that the Bible is very clear about God loving all,” Oyola said, “I think it’s important that we define who ‘all’ is.”
Senior English major Conor Whalen also marched with the protesters. For Whalen, whose sister is bisexual, the event was personal. He carried a sign in Adams Park that read, “For our queer siblings, now and forever.”
Whalen’s family’s church was not affirming, and he says that when his sister came out she no longer wanted to stay engaged in the church.
“There’s a million and one reasons why she left the church,” Whalen said. “But sexuality was a big part of that, as she had gay friends at school, but also was gay herself and was coming out and trying to figure out the church and fitting into that. I don’t know where she is in terms of faith.”
Whalen said he hopes that the protest brings attention to the ways that queer students at Wheaton are hurting.
Five minutes away from their last stop, the corner of College Avenue and North Washington Street near College Church, the group began to chant, “Hey ho, hey ho, queerphobia has got to go!”
Hauling soggy backpacks, hair plastered to their faces, they faced Jessie Wright as she prepared to lead the group in one final prayer. “Open the eyes of Wheaton’s administration,” Wright said, “lead them towards reconciliation. We pray for peace and courage for our queer brothers and sisters.”