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“I love the Lord, and I don't see any error in my ways”: Students navigate being queer in religious organizations

Illustrated by Yifei Zhang

By Kavya Sahni     10/27/20 9:45pm

Editor's Note: The Thresher has granted anonymity to certain students who are not yet out to their community or family members. Anonymous students who have been given pseudonyms will be indicated with an asterisk* in their first mention. 

The moment Shirley* decided that she wanted to attend Rice was during an event hosted by  Christian club Chi Alpha at Owl Days in 2019. The event was an ice cream social and “large group” gathering — Rice Chi Alpha’s weekly event where members sing worship songs and their pastor, Josh Bell, goes over a message from the Bible.

“I felt super connected to Rice Chi Alpha before I even came here,” Shirley, now a sophomore, said.

Shirley has also leaned into another community at Rice: Rice Pride, the university’s LGBTQ+ organization.

Across campus, queer students like Shirley are members of religious organizations such as Rice Chi Alpha, Rice Hillel and Rice Muslim Student Association. While some of them are comfortable sharing their LGBTQ+ identity with peers in their religious groups, others stay silent due to fear of judgement and discrimination. The Thresher spoke with seven students about how they navigate being queer in various religious organizations.  

Queer and Christian

Shirley said she’s never felt conflicted between identifying as a Christian and identifying as bisexual.

“I don't think that my identification as a bisexual makes my God love me any less,” Shirley said. “And I would hope that everybody else in Chi Alpha would feel the same way just because …  our core mission and our unified truth that we have as a Christian organization on campus is that we love others because he first loved us.”

Chi Alpha has been a “lifeline” for Shirley, she said. Apart from being a source of community and support for each other, Shirley's small group within Chi Alpha meets once a week to talk about scripture and update each other on their lives.

Shirley is not out as bisexual to most members of Chi Alpha, she said. She cited differences in interpreting Bible scriptures and potential negative reactions as things that hold her back.

“It's more comfortable for me to be presumed straight, because you never know the way people and their different theologies understand the scriptures in the Bible,” Shirley said. “I don't want the assumption to be made about me that I love my God any less ... or that my God loves me any less, because I also may love a woman.”

Rice Chi Alpha is a student club and ministry and Rice’s branch of the nationwide organization, which is sponsored by World Assemblies of God Fellowship, an assembly of Protestant churches.

Shirley said she feels like her fear of judgment from Chi Alpha, a community that she cherishes, comes a lot more from her perception of how they would judge her if she came out to them and less so from the reality of how they would respond.

“I have had conversations about these sorts of issues with people [in Chi Alpha] where they would sort of insinuate that it's not right, or insinuate that it's sinful, or say, you know, salvation will heal them, they'll see the error of their ways,” Shirley said. “It makes me confused, because I have accepted salvation, and I love the Lord, and I don't see any error in my ways.”

According to Shirley, Rice Chi Alpha has never addressed queerness in sermons or explicitly expressed their support for queer students.

“Nobody's ever been explicit in being unwelcoming. But I don't think that there was ever a preface or anything saying like, ‘Hi, welcome, we love you if you're gay,’” Shirley said. 

Josh Bell, Chi Alpha’s pastor, declined the Thresher’s request for an interview. The Thresher also reached out to a staff member at Rice Chi Alpha, Grace Weng, who was not available for an interview, but wrote that “Rice Chi Alpha is a student Christian ministry that welcomes all students, regardless of race, sex, religion, sexual orientation, national/ethnic origin or age” in a statement to the Thresher.

While Shirley said that she has not discussed queerness during small or large group meetings or Bible study, she has had “vague” conversations about LGBTQ+ rights with other people in Chi Alpha. When they disagree, she said she often goes into a “Bible battle” over the differing interpretations of passages.

“Sometimes I will get the message or the answer back that, you know, ‘I do think that's their right. But I also think that the Bible says it's wrong.’ And that's not the way that I've read the Bible,” Shirley said. “There's nothing about my going on a date with a girl that prohibits me from loving my God and loving my neighbor.”

Shirley said that she feels like the public image of religious organizations on college campuses can make it seem like members believe they’re “elevated” in some way — which she said is not the case for Chi Alpha.

“I just don't want the public image to be that it's an exclusive or a judgmental place or that we get together on Thursdays to hate gay people or something like that, because that's nowhere even close to the way that I've experienced it,” Shirley said.

Isabella*, a sophomore who is also a member of Chi Alpha, said she is out as bisexual to about a third of her friends as well as her family, but not to anyone at Chi Alpha except for two other queer students. This is driven by numerous concerns, she said, such as her interest in pursuing leadership roles in the future.

“I'm very nervous, since I have heard rumors that Chi Alpha is not for LGBTQ+. I'm kind of scared of talking to any leaders, even if they're my small group leaders who are also undergraduate students,” Isabella said. “I want to lead some things in Chi Alpha, and I'm scared that that would prevent me from leading worship.”

Like Shirley, Isabella said that while she hasn’t specifically heard anyone at Chi Alpha say that they do not support queer students, she hasn’t heard the opposite message of support either.

Isabella said she perceives Chi Alpha to be more on the liberal end of Christianity than most Christian ministries in the nation or in Texas. The group has spent a semester discussing racial justice and how students can stand up against discrimination, she said. At a small group meeting a few weeks ago, Isabella said she brought up LGBTQ+ groups in that context.

“I mentioned LGBTQ+ groups, and everyone in the call including my small group leaders [was] like ‘Yeah, definitely,’ not saying anything like ‘Oh, well you know, we don't believe that what they're doing is right’ or anything like that,” Isabella said. “I was like, okay, making little steps to see if I can trust my small group leaders, and [there are] good things so far.”

Elizabeth*, a freshman, is involved in the Catholic Student Association as well as Cru at Rice, which is a nondenominational Christian organization. She is bisexual and is out to some people at Rice, including one of her friends at Cru at Rice, whom she knows outside of the context of the religious group.

Elizabeth is part of a freshman fellowship group in the Catholic Student Association. She said she brought up the topic of homosexuality when Raymond Cook, the pastor who leads the church at St. Mary’s and is the director of the Catholic Student Center and Campus Ministry at Rice, joined one of the group’s Zoom calls as a guest.

“I know that in the Bible, there is a part where people have interpreted it as, like, ‘homosexuality is sin.’ So I asked him to explain that a bit more,” Elizabeth said. “His response was like, ‘homosexuals themselves, are people and are valid, and we should do our duty to protect them. However, homosexuality itself is still a sin and not good.’”

According to Elizabeth, Cook moved on to other topics and she didn’t pursue it further. But his response made her confused and uncomfortable, she said.

Elizabeth said that she’s not close enough to the other students in the freshman fellowship at the Catholic Student Association to bring up her sexuality. Unlike her life group at Cru at Rice, the group does not meet in person, which Elizabeth said makes it difficult to gauge how comfortable they would be. Elizabeth said that she would feel comfortable coming out to the members of her life group at Cru at Rice. It’s a small group of five women, and they meet in person to go over the Bible and discuss their faith.

“It's a lot more like a small bubble that's very open, positive and welcoming. So if I were to come out, I would feel okay doing so with them,” Elizabeth said. “I wouldn't worry about them necessarily trying to convert me or something like that.”

Ksenia Metruck, one of the co-presidents of the Catholic Student Association, said that the organization strives to build a community based on love and support for its members.

“Everyone, regardless of sexual or gender identity, is always welcome with us and we do our best to make that known when advertising events,” Metruck, a senior at Brown College, said.

According to Metruck, the Catholic Student Association will soon be hosting a discussion with Cook and philosophy lecturer Victor Saenz focused on human sexuality in the Catholic Church.

“In order to make all students more comfortable, we will have several students available to talk to outside during the discussion,” Metruck said. “We will have a group chat throughout the following weeks for students to ask additional questions and talk amongst each other as members of the same faith community.”

The Thresher reached out to Cru at Rice leadership, who did not respond to the request for an interview.

James*, an officer in Rice Baptist Student Ministry who identifies as gay, came out to the Baptist Student Ministry’s campus minister as a freshman. According to James, the minister and other Baptist Student Ministry staff said that there were no restrictions on membership. Requirements included being a practicing Christian, working on service events and teaching Bible study.

“I didn't want to have any drama or scandal or anything about it later on,” James said. “Fortunately, this is Rice University and our campus minister has seen just about everything there is to see in his 12 to 13 years at Rice.”

Even before James was an officer for Baptist Student Ministry, he worked on improving things for queer students in the organization. Bible study groups at Baptist Student Ministry used to be separated by gender, but James helped start the organization’s first non-gendered Bible study group, which now continues to meet multiple times a week.

“These [gender-separated] groups are supposed to be safe places to discuss sensitive topics, but this is obviously problematic for students like me,” James said. “I don't really enjoy opening up to groups of straight guys –– they just don't get it.”

James worked with Baptist Student Ministry’s campus staff to organize talks about Christian identity and encourage open dialogues about how sexual, gender and racial identities affect students’ lives as Christians. He has worked to have these conversations informally as well, he said.

“When questions come up or someone just wants to talk about it, we do so freely and allow anyone to share their views or experiences,” James said. “The great thing about Rice is that all our students recognize that real experience is way more important than preconceived notions … This was a nice change from home where people seemed to enjoy ‘telling’ me about who they think I am or how they think I feel. Here, I'm actually listened to.”

James said that the Baptist Student Ministry has the same, positive attitude towards all students –– “everyone is on equal footing,” James said.

Anna*, a sophomore, is on the lead team at Baptist Student Ministry and is out as pansexual to her friends as well as to a few members of Baptist Student Ministry. While she said she doesn’t feel excluded because of her orientation, she doesn’t want anyone to question her identity as a Christian because of it.

Anna said that she has come out to one of the non-student members of Baptist Student Ministry, an intern, who Anna said did not say much in response.

“[The intern] never made me feel excluded or sinful for it. I know other queer people who participate in [Baptist Student Ministry] Bible studies, so I feel like my experience as a queer person struggling to undersand their faith wasn't entirely new to her,” Anna said. “I honestly don't want to mention it to ... any of the other religious leaders in the club. It's not a matter of who I think they are as people, but just the fact that I don't want to be told that there's something wrong with me, because I know a lot of Biblical texts are taken and put in that lens.”

Anna said that she heard a lot of homophobic rhetoric while growing up in the church –– an experience she hasn’t had at Baptist Student Ministry. According to Anna, some of the most hurtful things she’s heard in conversations at Rice about queerness and religiousness have come from other queer people, which has made her reluctant to be involved in the queer community.

“I've had conversations with queer students at Rice that were actively condemning religious queer students and calling them ‘sell-outs’ or brainwashed for having faith, and it's honestly made me not want to take part in the queer community at Rice,” Anna said.

Grappling with the perception that people exist in binaries has been difficult –– Anna said that she has had conversations with queer people who have condemned her for being both a Christian and bisexual.

“I've had conversations with queer religious people who might have considered themselves ‘reformed’ or ‘healed,’” Anna said. “It's almost like I'm too gay for my Christian friends and too Christian for my gay friends, and I never know where I stand.”

Queer and Jewish

Rose Click, a senior at Hanszen College, was raised by a Jewish mother and Christian father. She’s involved in Rice Chi Alpha and Rice Hillel, a Jewish organization on campus. Click is out as queer to all the people in her life, including her friends, family and members of her small group at Chi Alpha.

While she said she hasn’t been involved enough in Rice Hillel to be out to the leadership there, Click said that it’s not a purposeful decision and that she has noticed that Rice Hillel is willing to voice allyship and openly have conversations about queerness. Leaders at Rice Hillel have sent messages in the group chat for National Coming Out Day as well as during Pride Month, according to Click, who said it was really exciting to see that kind of support for queer students in a faith-based group.

“It's not always obvious with religious groups that everyone is welcome, and that we are loving and supportive of all of our queer students and all the queer members of our family,” Click said. “It was really reaffirming. I was like, ‘Wow, I never seen someone actually call this out instead of thinking that support could just be unspoken and assumed.’”

According to Aliza Brown, president of Rice Hillel, the organization tries to make its space as welcoming as possible, and “prides itself on being an extremely inclusive environment for all students.”

“We know that we must do more than just posting a rainbow and calling it a day,” Brown, a Will Rice College junior, said. “It’s about continual support and uplifting of Jewish students with marginalized identities, which is why we have many events geared towards Rice’s LGBTQ+ community.”

Rice Hillel conducts an annual Queer Passover Seder, according to Brown, and partners with the Queer Resource Center on regular conversations, the most recent of which was held in September and was called “Navigating Queer and Transness with Spirituality.” Other talks have addressed current events such as the Chicago Dyke March.

Mark Helman, president of the Jewish organization Chabad at Rice, said that Chabad at Rice does not focus on events for queer students.

“I think we welcome them. But also I must say, …  we don't do anything specifically towards the LGBTQ+ community,” Helman, a Lovett College junior, said. “So we won’t do an event about LGBTQ+ community, but we're not against them coming to the events or anything like that.”

According to Helman, one difference between Chabad and Hillel is that Chabad is a more Orthodox Jewish organization. Helman said that there are certain Orthodox Jewish communities in the United States who are against LGBTQ+ rights, which is not the case at Chabad at Rice.

“[Rabbi] Shmuli [Slonim] and [Rebbetzin] Nechama [Slonim] know that a lot of Jewish students [are] LGBTQ+ and they’re aware, and they’re not going to make them go away or anything,” Helman said. “They’re just going to welcome them like any other person.”

Rabbi Shmuli Slonim, the rabbi at Chabad at Rice, said that the community welcomes Jewish students of all backgrounds.

“We believe that every person is created ‘B’tzelem Elokim,’ in the image of G-d, and has profound holiness,” Shmuli Slonim said. “Each person, regardless of their identity or orientation, should be treated with love, respect and dignity.”

According to Shmuli Slonim, he and Nechama Slonim run Chabad at Rice “to serve all Jewish students, irrespective of their background or orientation.”

“We hope and pray that every person who walks through our doors feels the vibe which we try to impart: zero judgement, zero expectations,” Shmuli Slonim said. “We just want to help students take pride in their identity as Jews, whether that is through learning more, experiencing Judaism … that's what we are here for.”

Rabbi Kenneth Weiss, the executive director of Houston Hillel, similarly said he strives to create an inclusive space for queer Jews.

“I hope that our programs send the message that I and Rice Hillel are affirming, and that students who want to talk, but aren’t yet ready to do so in a public environment, will feel comfortable approaching me privately,” Weiss said. “Rice Hillel’s example can also help students realize that there are spiritual spaces around the country where they can feel welcome.”

Weiss said that he stays in touch with many Rice graduates who have said that Rice Hillel was one of the few spaces on campus in which their identity wasn’t an issue — whether they were out or not — and who remember Hillel as an environment in which they could relax and not worry. 

Noticing this open support from Rice Hillel made Click think about the other organization she’s involved in: Rice Chi Alpha.

“It was also kind of highlighting, well, this is what is lacking in this other group that I'm a part of,” Click said. “I'm not getting that message from Chi Alpha.”

Queerness is a central topic of conversation at Click’s small group meetings –– it's like another group of her friends, she said, with whom she talks about what goes on in her love life and what her sexuality is.

In the large group setting at Rice Chi Alpha, on the other hand, Click said she remembers only one moment last year where inclusivity came up: at a large group meeting, someone said that using one’s faith to judge others was using faith wrongly. Click said that even if that mentality had always been there at Rice Chi Alpha, this was the first time she had actually heard it voiced, which she found to be supportive. 

However, as far as Click is aware, this was a one-time event. She said she finds it concerning that this message is not integrated into normal conversations at Chi Alpha.

“Why is that not a part of the message every week about how we can be better allies for every possible group? Why is that not a more central part of our message and our identity as a group?” Click said. “I'm not concerned that I'm about to be judged personally. But I think that is something that I definitely think about with every event.”

Queer and Muslim

Aisha*, a sophomore, is a part of the Rice Muslim Student Association. She identifies as a lesbian. Growing up, religion was integrated into Aisha’s life –– her family is Sunni Muslim, and according to her, they are quite rigid in their beliefs and behavior, including an “unspoken set of rules that everyone abided by, choice or not.”

As she grew older and started evaluating her belief system and faith, Aisha’s relationship with her faith became more complicated, she said.

“Proclaiming my love for God, or asking for blessings was not as simple anymore — it meant I stood up for everything Islam advocated, and I resented everything Islam debated against,” Aisha said.

Aisha is out as lesbian to many people at Rice, she said, but not to people at Rice Muslim Student Association or to her family or friends at home.

“Me coming to Rice means detaching myself from the shackles that religion back at my home chained me in,” Aisha said.

Some of her friends at Rice are Muslim Student Association members, and she is out to them. Aisha said that she does not feel a strong affiliation with Rice Muslim Student Association, and a primary reason is the organization’s lack of discussion of LGBTQ+ rights.

Zain Imam, the co-president of the Rice Muslim Student Association, said that the Rice MSA strives to make the Muslim Student Association a welcoming place for all students.

“The Rice [Muslim Student Association] focuses on providing a safe space for marginalized communities and does not take a specific stance on the Muslim LGBTQ+ community,” Imam, a Duncan College senior, said.

According to Imam, the Rice Muslim Student Association's board has discussed the inclusion of the LGBTQ+ community multiple times and has set up an inclusion committee to improve inclusivity within the organization. The board has spoken to outside religious leaders to provide guidance and plans to host a town hall as well.

“As Muslims, we are proud to be a community with diverse identities in every and all aspects, but our main focus is how these complex intersections form the unity that is our Ummah,” Imam said. “That being said, we are still aware that highlighting these differences plays an instrumental role in ensuring that all Muslims and all parts of their identities are seen and appreciated.”

Aisha said she feels that there are not many opportunities at the Rice Muslim Student Association where a marginalized member would feel comfortable expressing themselves.

“In my opinion, Rice [Muslim Student Association] as a student organization has many areas in which it needs to greatly improve before it can provide comfort or solace to any minority group,” Aisha said. “By avoiding the topic in its entirety, the organization does not really provide any learning or growth opportunities garnered towards queer students.”

The Thresher also reached out to students and leadership at Rice Hindu Students Council, who did not respond to the request for an interview.

[10/28/2020 at 10:45 a.m.] This story was updated to accurately reflect Grace Wengs role in Rice Chi Alpha. She is a staff member, not an intern.

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