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After a bittersweet senior year at Seattle Pacific University, Chloe Guillot, 22, was determined to make a statement at graduation.
She knew she was supposed to be savoring the pomp and circumstance of celebrating the end of her undergraduate career. But her mind ran elsewhere. Instead, she was focused on what she wanted to say to SPU’s interim president, Pete Menjares, when she approached him on stage. Guillot, who double majored in Christian theology and social justice, was ready to put her degrees to immediate use.
“I feel like it’s my duty as a Christian to repent and advocate against hateful ideologies,” she said.
It wasn’t just her: Many in the community were contending with the latest issue in a years-long fight to change discriminatory policies against members of the LGBTQ community at Seattle Pacific, Guillot said. So before the day was over, about 50 graduating seniors, one after another, walked across the stage and handed Menjares something to remember them by: a Pride flag.
A video of the students’ protest was posted to the TikTok account @engaygetheculture and has since garnered more than 3 million views. Other videos posted by the account — which is run by 2022 graduate Pamela Styborski — chronicle students’ protest efforts.
she’s an icon 🎓 she’s a legend 🎓 and she IS the moment 🎓 🏳️🌈
Students at Seattle Pacific University protest their school’s anti-LGBTQ+ president by handing him Pride flags at graduation. pic.twitter.com/l3W4NZz5JT
— Peer Health Exchange (@PeerHealthExch) June 19, 2022
Many students, alumni and faculty at the Free Methodist-affiliated university are at odds with the Board of Trustees over the school’s Employee Lifestyle Expectations policy, which states that “employees are expected to refrain from sexual behavior that is inconsistent with the university’s understanding of biblical standards, including cohabitation, extramarital sexual activity, and same-sex sexual activity.” The trustees relooked at the policy late last month and voted to keep the verbiage the same.
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Pride flags at commencement weren’t the only way the student activists have openly criticized the policy. Since the board’s decision, students have staked out in front of board member Menjares’s office in Demaray Hall to demand a policy change.
Styborski, who is also a sit-in organizer, said the group has made the hall into a “gender-neutral dorm.”
The students — many of them recently graduated, like Styborski and Guillot — plan to continue sitting in until July 1, Guillot said. If nothing happens, they plan to sue the trustees for negatively impacting the campus community. (Menjares, along with the rest of the board, declined a request for comment.)
The university has been welcoming to LGBTQ students and staff in recent years, Guillot added. Its faculty senate passed a resolution asking the board to rethink its decision, and donors have delivered food and water to the sit-in activists, she said.
Alumni also participated in the sit-in, contributed to the $34,000 that has been raised for legal costs and shared social media posts in support.
However, the 12-member board hasn’t budgeted.
“It’s important that the charges be brought against the board and not the university,” Guillot said. “We need to bring accountability to them.”
After the trustees upheld the employee policy, they released a statement explaining their decision.
“While this decision brings complex and heart-felt reactions, the Board made a decision that it believed was most in line with the university’s mission and Statement of Faith and chose to have SPU remain in communion with its founding denomination, the Free Methodist Church USA , as a core part of its historical identity as a Christian university,” former board chairman Cedric Davis said in the statement.
Davis is one of the trustees who left the board amid the decision announcement. Kevin Johnson, another of the former trustees, expressed his discontent with the ruling on LinkedIn.
“I wholeheartedly stand for equality in all forms, and will always push for a community of love and inclusion,” Johnson wrote.
An FAQ on SPU’s website noted that many institutions in the Council for Christian Colleges & Universities have similar policies.
Shirley Hoogstra, President of the CCCU, believes the school’s faith statement has been a “compass” guiding the board’s decision on the employee policy.
“The United States Constitution allows you to practice your faith. We’re really upfront that we’re religious, and so nobody wants this to come as a surprise,” she said. Hoogstra cited other identity-specific institutions, including Catholic schools and historically Black colleges and universities, as examples of options people have when choosing higher education: “You don’t have to work there, and you don’t have to go there.”
Many at the university were unaware of the employee policy until last year, when gay adjunct nursing professor Jéaux Rinedahl sued the university for discrimination after he was denied a full-time position. Rinedahl no longer works at SPU, and the parties settled out of court earlier this year. After news spread about Rinedahl’s case, Pride flags popped up on professors’ windows and email signatures, and many wore Pride pins in solidarity, Styborski said.
“No matter the walk of faith you come from, or lack thereof, no matter your race, your identity, your sexuality, whether you’re a member of the LGBTQ community, professors, as far as I experienced, went above and beyond to support students in every aspect of their life,” she said.
A decade ago, students worked to make Haven, a group for LGBTQ students, an official club on campus. Now, students like Guillot and Styborski want people outside the school community to know that SPU’s social activist spirit has never stopped.
“I’ve had a passion for social justice since high school, even if I didn’t know exactly what it meant,” Guillot said. “This school empowers you to stand up for things you believe in.”
And at graduation, Guillot was empowered to do just that.
When Guillot walked across the stage, she carried the Pride flag in hand. And as she exchanged it for her SPU diploma cover, she finally stood face to face with Menjares and said the words that ran through her head during the ceremony:
“We’re not going to stop until the policy changes.”