|Posted on May 19, 2013 at 6:55 PM|
What follows is an open letter to Dr. Erik Thoennes, President Dr. Barry Corey, and Biola Administration. I, Jos Charles, am writing to you as a queer graduate of Biola, affiliate of the Biola Queer Underground, and continued supporter of our University.
Dear Dr. Thoennes, Dr. Barry Corey, and Biola Administration,
I recently started a petition asking Dr. Erik Thoennes to apologize for his homophobic, transphobic, and racist remarks at last fall’s Sexuality Matters discussion. During the discussion, Dr. Thoennes repeatedly compared queer sexuality to racism. Reading from the Biola Queer Underground’s mission statement, he publicly ridiculed the group’s experiences by substituting the word “racist” for “queer.” Thoennes went on to describe his perspective as “kind” and “loving.”
My petition has drawn some attention from GLAAD and other media outlets. However, it has yet to be acknowledged by Dr. Thoennes or the administration. I have since grown convinced that an apology is not enough to address the reality LGBTQ Biola students face. An apology might help alumni like me feel better about our alma mater, but would not stop the daily abuse of LGBTQ Biola students. Rather than change Thoennes’ beliefs, I want the conditions that allow Dr. Thonnes to bully students to be eliminated. I am writing to call for something much more than an apology: concerted structural change. We cannot have a safe Biola until we have a Biola that is open to dialogue with its students, queer or otherwise. That’s why I am asking Dr. Thoennes to meet openly with Biola Queer Underground members, other queer alumni, and me in an open panel on campus to discuss LGBTQ identities and their relation to Christianity. I want to make clear I am not asking to “debate” Dr. Thonnes on his positions. A debate would imply we, as LBGTQ Biolans, are external to Biola, coming to provide a contrasting perspective. Rather, we are Biola, and as Biola we demand that you listen and give our voices representation.
As it stands, Biola’s queer students are ostracized. Professors shame queer students with slurs and tolerate bullying in the classroom. Campus security polices whether same-gender couples can hold hands or publicly express their gender identities. The Biola Queer Underground frequently has their event posters removed by administration. At Biola, queer oppression is institutionalized.
Perhaps I take this for granted, but I assume faith communities agree LGBTQ people should not live under fear of violence. Dr. Thoennes’ comments however contribute to, enable, and even encourage these sorts of violence. In the sexuality forum, queer students heard their desires and struggles publically likened to racism and mocked as a joke. Because of such bullying, LGBTQ Christians face some of the highest rates of suicide and homelessness in the country. Dr. Thoennes’ comments institutionally encourage attacks—whether it’s through a half-joking slur or physical assault. Dr. Thoennes cheered on our oppression. He took the bully’s side.
Furthermore, by using the terms “LGBT” and “homosexuality” interchangeably, Dr. Thoennes also silenced the voices of Biola’s trans* students. His comments betray an ignorance and fear of even talking about trans* issues. The only “T” in the discussion was Thoennes’ response to a question about “transvestites” [sic]. He quickly dismissed it as “dysfunction” and “perversion.” Treating any student’s identity as an unworthy topic for discussion serves to shame and silence that student. If Biola is going to talk about LGBTQ identity and its relation to Christianity, it must include trans* issues.
When Thoennes compared struggles against racism with his struggle against queer students, he erased the identities of queer students of color. Thoennes implied that cisgender, heterosexual students and faculty are “victims” of the BQU. His attempt to shift himself to “victim-status” is clear in phrases such as “feel[ing] far less freedom” to call queerness sinful than racism and his considering LGBTQ people “a tidal wave of opposition.” The analogy drew on a racist trope of queer people as white and people of color as straight. Queer students of color were doubly ostracized by the comparison.
That such statements were made just as Biola opened the Mosaic Cultural Center is telling. The new Center is supposed to represent Biola’s commitment to “engaging in critical thought and dialogue” in issues of diversity. In practice, however, we have seen students stripped of representation in public discussion. The panelists didn’t even trust Biola students’ “critical thought” enough to include one LGBTQ-affirming perspective. Thoennes laughed at the thought of letting a queer ally speak on campus. Yet even among evangelical Christians, 30% of churchgoers identify as LGBTQ-inclusive. Biola is simply not working towards making campus a safe space for queer students.
Dr. Thoennes’ comments are not unique, but part of a larger, structural problem. Biola needs to discuss LGBTQ issues, yes, but also race. Dr. Thonnes’ comments betrayed a disturbing misunderstanding of racism. He spoke of homosexuality and racism as both active, conscious choices; however, not only is homosexuality not a conscious choice, neither is racism. To treat racism without discussing privilege, material exploitation, and power, is a distortion. It removes racism from its historical context, a context that has largely benefitted white Christians like Dr. Thoennes. By painting a picture of racism that denies his privileged position as a Christian white man, Dr. Thoennes presents a revisionist view of Christianity’s problematic relationship to race.
If Christians are going to discuss topics like race and sexuality we have to start from acknowledging Christianity’s historically held center of power, which has been key in the spreading of racism, homophobia, transphobia, and patriarchy. A more fitting analogy between racism and queerness is that white people still benefit from past and continued race oppression; cisgender, heterosexual people still benefit from past and continued sexuality and gender oppression.
Until Dr. Thoennes and the Biola administration are willing to face, discuss, and listen to students, Biola will continue to propagate abuse, particularly for students of color and queer students. If administration continues to not address this issue, they continue to erase the voices of the student body.
Dr. Thoennes, Dr. Barry Corey, and Biola Administration: you do not solely represent the Biola community. The student body, in all its diversity, is Biola. It is administration and faculty’s responsibility to listen to and benefit our experience—and we will not be silenced.
Thank you for your time,