EXCLUSIVE: Soulforce director speaks with EV

After months of silence, the Biola Queer Underground resurfaced Friday morning to advertise a panel on identity, sexuality, and gender. The panel will be held at La Mirada City Council on November 16th at 6:00pm. The BQU will be joined by Soulforce, an organization that “is committed to relentless nonviolent resistance to bring freedom to lesbian, gay, bisexual transgender, and queer people from religious & political oppression.” EagleVision got an EXCLUSIVE interview with Soulforce’s Director of Development, Haven Herrin.

Interview transcript with Haven Herrin

EagleVision: News broke this morning of your involvement with the Biola Underground, so I was just calling to find out where that involvement started and to get some answers to questions that are going around campus.

As I am sure you know, Soulforce is an organization very invested in young adult leadership, young adult activism. And one of our main focuses is working at schools, a lot like Biola, where students have a hard time coming out, risk being kicked out, or being put into reparative therapy. And helping them sort of manifest on campus, so what they think would be compassionate. The first time at Biola was of course in 2006, when we went on campus and had a full day of workshops, events, for students, etc… And we have continued to work with folks at Biola and a lot of other schools across the country. We now have an alumni group, called SafetyNet, which is LGBTQ alumni at schools like Biola. And I think through that group, we maintained contact with the Underground group at Biola. My co-worker, Mason, is coming out with an equality writer from this year [Crystal Cheatham], so those two people are representing SoulForce in Southern California. And they are working with 5 or 6 schools actually in the Southern California area, Biola being one of them. Specifically at Biola, it’s a panel that they are hosting with alumni from Biola, of whom identify as LGBTQ. Part of that panel discussion is the reading of a statement from current LGBT identified students at Biola, who feel as though if they were to come out they would risk their standing at that school, and could be expelled. So in part, the event is to talk about matters of identity, sexuality, and gender, and really just get those out in the open and have an open discussion about that. And then the other is to be in solidarity with the underground group, and kind of air their stories on their behalf, so that folks are hearing this and knowing that this is what it’s like to be a student at Biola if you’re LGBT.

So the panel won’t be a time for the Underground to be there, they physically won’t be there? Is the panel on their behalf?

I would imagine that they will be there, but they will not be identifying themselves as members of the underground group, because that is to much of a risk for them.

Obviously, they (BQU) are scared about that risk of being kicked out of school. How do they, or you on behalf of Soulforce, or Soulforce itself respond to how the school has said multiple times the fact that they would not be kicked out of school, and that there would be a discussion held?

I think that that is a great step forward that Biola takes to assure students who are in a real place of fear and concern about their educational careers. At the same time I really empathize with students who are part of the Underground group, because students are kicked out across the country for this. And you know, coming out, what if their parents find out, or yes they can stay but they have to go into a therapy that is not affirming of their identities. Obviously these questions are real, and these questions are really hard to know the answers to, when policy and church doctrine are not supporting a full conversation that would address these fears. I understand why the students are afraid, I understand that Biola is trying to allay those fears, and you know I wouldn’t council students to come out in a really bold way, at most of the schools that we visit, because that is too much of a risk.

What is the goal of the panel?

I think the panel can accomplish a lot of things. It provides a way for allies to find LGBTQ people. Often I find on campuses that if the conversation is not happening in a robust way, you don’t know who can be your buddy. And so, creating a social that is specifically about talking about these issues helps people find allies, helps people find other people that are interested in this conversation, which can be a scary first step if you are doing it alone and a students at one of these schools. Secondly, I would hope from folks who have grown up hearing a certain kind of theology about sexuality and gender, that this is an opportunity for them to hear from other kinds of scholarship and other very valid viewpoints, and even from some of their peers, that not everybody thinks the same way, that there are a lot of different ways to be a Christian. And then lastly, you know they are going to hear from LGBTQ identified people, who are also people of faith and find that very reconciled. And often that’s a really new mindset to hear for some students. I think there is a lot to learn, there is a lot to share on both sides of the issue, and I think that these panelists are going to provide a really valuable safe place where you can hold ideas out in the open without fear of the Bible.

Why do you want change on a campus like Biola, and I know there may be other campuses like that, that have made their Biblical convictions clear?

I really believe in an understanding of the gospel that we are in a constant examination and re-embodiment of our faith. And so this conversation for me is not so much about what does this institution get to do, what are this institutions rights, rather how are we developing as a people concerned about social justice and the well-being of our peers. And so when students are suffering and coming to Soulforce and saying I can’t be out, I’m afraid. You know, my teacher found out, my friend found out, I’m feeling discriminated against or I’m feeling that I’m not welcome here. You know, that really pulls at my sense of the gospel and what we are drawn to do. And so yes it comes out in the sense of we are looking at the specific policies and the specific doctrines, but it is much more about the bigger picture for me of how do we respond to somebody who is really hurting. It is just bigger than policies for me.

As you are trying to pursue this change on college campuses, what change would satisfy you that you would say, that is real change?

That is a great question. There are so many things I hope for, and I’m also very aware of where schools are at and that they are coming from a very genuine place. Change that I am very excited to see happening at some schools across the country is disavowal of ex-gay or reparative therapy, recognizing that major scientific and health bodies have said that ex-gay therapy and reparative therapy isn’t possible [and] is actually harmful to people. And essentially removing that from the things that are requested of students. I think it’s a great step towards safety and affirmation of people where they’re at. I love seeing schools take the step of truly welcoming LGBT identified people who are self-affirming to campus, which communicates that there is a multiplicity of valid scholarship and valid theologies around this. We do disagree, and it has to be talked about. And this isn’t going to go away. And then recognizing that students are hurting, students are in pain. And we can’t just keep circling back to, well this is policy, because that is not going to solve the pain. And so there just needs to be a recognition of, we have to go somewhere together and solve this, and keep talking about this until we find something that does feel like reconciliation for the people who are hurting the most.

Can you tell me more about the Biola Underground itself?

I feel very protective of the students who are in the underground, that’s the name they go by for a reason. So, it is really not my place to do that.

What level of support are you as Soulforce offering them (BQU) explicitly?

This is a great question and I want to be very clear on this point, that they reached out to us. This is not Soulforce coming in and saying here’s what your campus needs. We are very guided by the students themselves, and they are absolutely leaders in this event. They may be underground, but they are definitely in charge. They reach out to us, and we provide advice, we provide information on what other student groups have done as options for them. As we do to pretty much the whole world, we provide lots of information, resources, booklets, scholarship, etc… Now, which the group may be availing itself of I’m not sure. One of the best things that Soulforce does is we just back people up. We’re there to hear them when they’re having a tough time on campus, and we care, and we show up, and we help hem organize in a way that they feel is self-liberating.

Do you think that the Underground will ever come out, or do you think it will remain an underground organization and kind of a support group for people? Or do you think they will allow themselves to be known on campus?

I can’t predict the future for them. They are clearly hungry for a campus in which they can be out and they can feel affirmed and they can feel safe, and I hope for that for them as well. I kind of have to turn that question back to Biola, about what is Biola going to do to make their campus a place where a group doesn’t actually have to call itself underground.

What do you know about the advertising that took place on campus this morning? Was that directly tied to the Underground, was that tied to you?

We are not there in Sothern California right now, and we are not actually going to be there until next week. So I’m guessing that that was actually the students themselves doing that work. That is something that we would usually leave up to the people that live there and go to school there, that they get to be the voice for what they want to see happen. We would never come in and advertise something for somebody else.

When the Biola Underground cam out last year, there was kind of a question of, why include the word Queer? I have always thought of queer as a negative word, so how do the Underground use the word Queer in a positive sense?

People use the word queer in a lot of different ways, and if it is somebody who is self-identifying as queer, it usually sort of a reclamation of the word, taking back the power of a word usually used as an insult. It’s an empowering thing. Queer identity means a lot of different things to a lot of different people, but it is about recognizing a history of oppression and saying I’m actually going to take apart of that back, because that is valuable to my identity and those that are oppressing my identity can’t have that. And so, a lot of young people use “gay” sometimes as a very generational slip around the use of the word queer. Lastly, I don’t recommend, if you are not part of the LGBTQ community, calling somebody else queer. It’s one of those funny words, where people in the community can use it, but people outside the community should probably be cautious about it…. If they (BQU) have claimed it as a word that is part of their title or if they self-identify as somebody who is queer, then it’s cool to use it. You never know how a word is going to strike somebody; so let them claim it before you use it for them.

My last question, why now? They made themselves known on campus last semester and then faded away over all this time, why now? Today and then next week with the panel, is there a purpose behind the timing?

A student group that is also underground… in Long Beach, reached out to us and was in fact our first impetus for coming to the LA region. The Biola Underground group is apart of our larger alumni group, called SafetyNet. Through that we let them know, hey we’re coming to your area, and if you need us for anything, if we can be of help let us know. Kind of through the networks that we have built, with students and alumni across the country, we have 8 or 10 different events happening in 5 days in Los Angeles and Biola is one of them. Why now? It is always a good time, but I think looking at the news you see there are student groups coming out more and more often. More and more leaders coming out on their behalf, more and more people of faith saying this is an important social justice issue. It’s kind of apart of the times, and it is also slightly practical. We happen to be there and they (BQU) wanted us to and it makes for good time. They have been doing great work all along and organizing and I think they are so ready for this.

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