LGBTQIA+ activists protest Title IX's religious exemptions, argue discrimination
On Oct. 11, a small group of George Fox University students and alums, clad in rainbow-colored clothing and touting LGBTQIA+ affirming signs and flags, gathered in front of the college's clocktower to demand an end to Title IX's religious exemptions.
The walkout protest, called #StrikeoutQueerphobia and taking place on National Coming Out Day, occurred simultaneously at numerous other Christian universities across the country.
"Today, we all walked out on universities who have all failed LGBTQIA+ students," said Benny Schorie, a nonbinary GFU student who organized the protest. "Today, we walked out, so that we could walk in, into a revolution, demanding the rights we all deserve as students in the United States of America."
Title IX prohibits sex-based discrimination in all educational programs, such as colleges and universities, that receive federal funding, but makes exemptions for religious freedom.
GFU qualifies for a religious exemption and requires students and faculty to sign a lifestyle agreement that defines "marriage between one man and one woman."
"We as a nation demand, at a minimum, the guaranteeing of the rights and protections of all students, staff and faculty at any and all colleges and university campuses," Schorie said, "as well as the ability to exist completely as themselves, regardless of any diverse background."
Many queer students who spoke at the event said they have not felt safe or protected at GFU.
Moriah Reed, a gay GFU senior formerly in student government, said that while GFU pretends to "give students fake power and false progress in the name of listening sessions and subcommittees," behind closed doors they "hush stories and lawsuits."
She said that members of the queer community "have begged in tears for the empathy of those in power" and cited theological, philosophical, financial and economic reasons for why the school's stance on sexuality should change.
"I've come to believe that unless there is structural reform, queer students will never be properly supported here," Reed said. "Taking away the university's favorite tool to discriminate against queer students is a step we need and, to be pessimistic, one of the only steps that I actually believe will be effective in advancing the protection of queer students on this campus."
GFU alum Audrey Wojnarowisch was one such student who did not feel protected.
While attending the university, Wojnarowisch said she was stalked, harassed and eventually raped by another student, but because she and her abuser identified as queer, her case was never reported.
"It never went anywhere," she said. "I was left to fend for myself."
In 2021, she took action in hopes of preventing her experience from happening again. She, along with over 40 other plaintiffs from evangelical colleges across the nation, joined the Elizabeth Hunter, et al. v Department of Education federal lawsuit to eliminate religious exemptions from Title IX.
Wojnarowisch said GFU has often used these exemptions to deny transgender students access to "correct gender housing," such as when the university would not allow Jayce Montgomery, who was assigned female at birth, to live with his male friends on campus several years ago.
Montgomery filed a lawsuit against GFU, but the Department of Education sided with the defendant, citing the very exemption Wojnarowisch is fighting. Montgomery also is a plaintiff in the Hunter case.
"We're suing the Department of Education because our taxpayer dollars are funding schools that are allowed to discriminate because of Title IX religious exemptions," Paul Southwick, the lawyer for both Montgomery's lawsuit and the Hunter case said. "The purpose is to say, 'look, if your school's going to take federal money, you need to treat LGBTQ students with safety and respect."
He said a decision on the Hunter case could happen any day, but most likely before the year's end.
This is an intimate issue for Southwick. A 2005 GFU graduate, Southwick said the university's counseling center recommended conversion therapy when he privately came out as gay in session and to other GFU leadership.
"They don't do that anymore, which I'm happy to hear, but at the time they did," Southwick said. "I think some progress has been made. Something like this (protest) could never have happened while I was here."
In fact, while a student at GFU, Southwick "spent a lot of nights in that little prayer chapel and asking God to change me."
"I was so scared," he said. "I was scared of my classmates finding out, my professors finding out, my family and, unfortunately, I went to the campus pastor who I thought would be the right person to talk to about my struggles, and at the time the campus pastor told me my struggle is with Satan and encouraged me to attend an ex-gay program."
Southwick described that time in conversion therapy as "the darkest years of his life."
"I'm really glad I made it through," he said, "and it's part of why I do what I do. I don't want other young people to ever go through that kind of lonely and isolating experience. And that's why things like today's protest and gathering and letting people have a queer student club are so important. If I had something like that, at least I wouldn't have felt alone."
Organizers for the #StrikeoutQueerphobia event made a list of demands for GFU, including allowing on-campus queer communities, "equitable housing for trans and gender nonconforming people," and "gender and sexuality training for staff and faculty with real queer perspectives." They also demanded GFU cease hiring discrimination and turning away applicants with LGBTQIA+ affirming theology.
In response to the demands, Rob Felton, GFU's chief of staff, release this statement:
"We are committed to caring for and supporting our LGBTQ students. George Fox is a Christian university with orthodox Christian beliefs about human sexuality. The students delivered their list of requests to us today. We will review them and look for ways that we can support all of our students in ways that are consistent with our Christ-centered mission and faith tradition."
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