APU partners with LGBTQ+ students on campus to create a ‘safe space’ for all students

Effective this fall 2018 semester, Azusa Pacific removed language from its student standard of conduct agreement that prohibited public LGBTQ+ relationships for students on campus. As an evangelical institution, APU still adheres to the Biblical principles of human sexuality—the belief that “sexual union is intended by God to take place only within the marriage covenant between a man and a woman” remains a cornerstone of the university’s foundation.

This change is a result of much dialogue between students and administration. For years, LGBTQ+ students at APU have run an underground support group called Haven. However, because they weren’t endorsed by APU as an official club, they couldn’t gather on campus or advertise their meetings.

The group met in apartments around APU because members only knew about Haven by word-of-mouth. Members of Haven were motivated to have their voices heard after an APU faculty member was the target of a hate crime on campus, where LGBTQ+ slurs were used against him.

Last year, with help from LGBTQ+ organization Brave Commons, Haven members started discussing this topic with administration. Erin Green, co-executive director of Brave Commons and recent APU alumni, coordinated much of these conversations.

“We thought it was unfair to single out queer folks in same-sex romantic relationships while it is impossible to enforce or monitor [whether other students are remaining abstinent],” Green said. “Queer students are just as able to have romanticized relationships that abide by APU’s rules. The code used falsely assumed that same-sex romances always involved sexual behavior. This stigmatization causes harm to our community, especially those serious about their Christian faith.”

The students spoke, and the administrative board listened. Associate Dean of Students Bill Fiala, Ph.D., said that as the board evaluated their code of conduct, they wanted to be attentive to equity.

“The changes that occured to the handbooks around sexual behavior creates one standard for all undergraduate students, as opposed to differential standards for different groups,” Fiala said. “The change that happened with the code of conduct is still in alignment with our identity as a Christian institution. The language changed, but the spirit didn’t. Our spirit is still a conservative, evangelical perspective on human sexuality.”

In addition to this change to the code of conduct, the Office of Student Life has worked with students to co-create a pilot program to provide a safe space for LGBTQ+ students on campus.

Fiala said that this decision is also partially owed to APU’s Student Government Association (SGA).

Last fall, the SGA passed a resolution asking the university to consider creating something more formal for LGBTQ+ students.

“We have been intentional about the program, and want it to be considered a program that comes out of student life and out of the university. We created this in support of the LGBTQ+ students at APU,” Fiala said. “One prong of that is the weekly meetings with Haven. Another aspect of that is educational outreach, and holding events. We are co-creating a program with students.”

This semester is the first trial run for the pilot program. The Office of Student Life hired two student interns to work with Fiala. The program is also partnering with Haven, holding weekly on-campus meetings on Tuesday evenings. Thirty-seven people turned up to the first meeting, and 47 people attended the second week.

Dylan Capote, junior theater major, was encouraged by the turnout.

“I feel like there’s already a degree of acceptance at APU,” Capote said. “In terms of the types of people you meet, there’s not as big of a difference as people might think.”

Nolan Croce, senior cinematic arts major, is one of the interns for the program. He spoke about the history of Haven at APU.

“Seeing the support for Haven this semester is extremely heartwarming. Over the years, Haven was this secret, underground group of students,” Croce said. “The mission of Haven changed all the time because there were different people, but last year some students, including myself, were starting to get fed up with having this secret underground club. We couldn’t meet on campus and couldn’t advertise it. There wasn’t any infrastructure, structure, or guidelines, and that would lend itself to an unsafe space.”

Fiala said that the university’s intention for the program is to create a sustainable, safe space for students.

“Our hope is that the students who come experience respect, justice, grace and understanding. If you look at our mission, it’s consistent with Christianity. Our values for the pilot program are inclusivity, love, bravery. Our goals are care, connection and conversation. These all seem like Christian values to me,” Fiala said. “I believe that our program’s mission is alignment with the values of the university in caring for students and creating conversation about difficult topics.”

The pilot program looks to improve community wellness for LGBTQ+ students within the Christian sphere. Plans are currently underway for future partnerships with other groups on campus, including SGA who has played a role in Haven’s curation, though nothing has been finalized yet.

Courtney Fredericks, co-manager of Haven and student life intern, seeks to inform people about Haven and the pilot program by dispelling negative stereotypes surrounding the LGBTQ+ community. She said, “We’re not secular. We’re looking for a space to worship as we are—to come as we are.”

Fiala gave encouragement to people questioning the university’s decision regarding LGBTQ+ issues.

“I would say that in any circumstance, you gotta approach things as a learner. Before making assumptions and drawing conclusions about people, get to know somebody different than you,” Fiala said. “I’m not a big fan of who’s right and who’s wrong in this conversation, I’m a big fan of caring for people. So my hope would be that we treat each other that way.”