Calvin College’s first overtly homosexual president paves the best way
(RNS) – When she dressed in a hat and gown to take her degree from Calvin University last month, Claire Murashima was proud of her bachelor’s degree in marketing management.
But for Murashima and many of her fellow alumni, her unique and unexpected accomplishment was her senior year while serving as the first openly gay student body president in the history of the pioneering Christian university in Grand Rapids, Michigan.
The black-haired 22-year-old, who grew up in Protestant churches in California and North Carolina and identifies as queer or bisexual, filled her post at the 145-year-old school by taking principled positions on her sexual orientation while maintaining – or at least sought – the respect of their mostly heterosexual colleagues and elders.
“I didn’t mean to do anything revolutionary or harmful to Calvin,” Murashima said. “I mainly came out so that people would look at me and know that they don’t have to give up their belief when they are in the LGBTQ community.”
Calvin is a member of the Christian Reformed Church, a small denomination that believes that “homosexual practices … are incompatible with obedience to the will of God revealed in scripture.” Same-sex orientation in itself is not a sin, however, and Murashima made a personal choice not to date or have sex with women the year she was student body president.
The school, named after John Calvin, the 16th century Protestant reformer, left them alone. While other Christian schools may have found a reason for the firing, Murashima was not blamed, disciplined, or otherwise harassed for getting out.
“For a CCCU institution, Calvin is relatively hospitable,” said Joseph Kuilema, an assistant professor of sociology and social work who taught Murashima last year, referring to the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities, an umbrella organization. But he added that the university still has a lot of work to do to fully welcome it.
A rough estimate puts the number of LGBTQ students attending Christian universities in the USA at around 100,000. The CCCU schools share a traditional Christian view of marriage between men and women. None of the schools allow LGBTQ individuals as full-time teachers or staff, and apart from Murashima, few LGBTQ students have advanced to leadership positions at the 180 CCCU schools.
In March, 33 LGBTQ students or alumni in state-funded Christian colleges and universities filed class action lawsuits against the U.S. Department of Education. In it, they claim that the ministry’s religious exception allows federal-funded schools to unconstitutionally discriminate against LGBTQ students. Only about half recognize LGBTQ alliance groups on campus.
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Calvin’s LGBTQ affinity group called SAGA (Sexuality and Gender Awareness) is alive, and the LGBTQ community also hosts regular Bible studies. Calvin students were not among the 33 named in the class action lawsuit against the Department of Education.
“I think Calvin excels at engaging in conversation,” said Joseph Newton, 23, a student who identifies as non-binary and queer. “She invests in the welfare of her students. It’s about listening to their concerns. “
That doesn’t mean being an LGBTQ student at Calvin is easy. At least it wasn’t for Murashima.
She arrived on campus from North Carolina and was proud of her Dutch Reformed maternal ancestors and her family’s Calvin heritage: her mother, uncle, and grandparents were all in attendance. In the non-denominational Chapel Hill Bible Church she was active in the youth group of the congregation and took part in four mission trips.
Adapting to a more conservative environment and the cold and gray winters of Grand Rapids has been difficult. She also struggled to reconcile her love for a fellow student and her Christian faith that viewed homosexuality as sinful.
“I was pretty depressed my first and sophomore year,” said Murashima. “I didn’t have a solid group of friends. I dealt with my sexuality all by myself. I kept breaking up and getting back together with a girl. “(The two are now friends.)
“I didn’t want to fully investigate that question,” she said. “When I found out that I was called to live a celibate life, I didn’t want to commit myself when I was 19 or 20.”
But she had served in the school’s student senate and discovered a passion for social justice. One of her proudest accomplishments was getting the university to run an annual dance marathon to raise money for a local children’s hospital.
The coronavirus pandemic hit when she was doing an internship at the American Enterprise Institute, a think tank in Washington, DC, and she had time on her hands. She decided to spend it to start a campaign for the student body president.
She won the election on May 8, 2020. By then, Murashima knew she was gay and had already come out to her mother and one of her roommates. However, she was not active in the LGBTQ group on campus and had made a strategic decision not to come out publicly until after the vote.
“I wanted to work in the system,” she says. “I didn’t want to shut down the store.”
At the beginning of the fall semester, she wrote an opinion article for the student newspaper Chimes, in which she explained her sexual orientation. Knowing she was walking a tightrope, she asked for feedback and shared her design with 13 people, including the university president, several deans, professors and a chaplain.
“I didn’t mean to catch anyone off guard,” she said. “I wanted to share my story and not undermine it. My question wasn’t, ‘should I do this?’ But how should I do that?'”
Her editorial was published on October 16, 2020.
“In the 102 years that the student senate has existed, we have never had an openly gay student body president,” she wrote. “I’m proud to be the first.”
The response was mostly positive. Some professors and students reiterated their views that scriptures forbid sex outside of heterosexual marriage, but the discourse was mostly polite. A professor who sticks to a traditional view of sexuality even invited her to his home for dinner.
She worked hard over the school year, she said, to prove to Calvin’s more conservative students that they could follow God, be gay, and lead well.
She avoided hot words like “homophobia” or “discrimination” and tried her best to listen and make people with different views heard.
Her term of office coincided with a debate within the Christian Reformed Church as to whether her doctrine of sexuality should be elevated to the authority of a creed or church doctrine. The topic will be discussed at the next meeting of the Church Synod or the governing body.
The CRC has no openly gay clergy. Recently, a Christian Reformed church in Grand Rapids appointed a person in a same-sex marriage to be a deacon or lay leader – a first in the denomination of approximately 210,000 members.
In March, a group of Conservative students set up a table on campus with a banner that read “LGBTQ is a sin”. The university replied that the students did not have permission for the table or banner. The incident was particularly noticeable to the hundreds of students who organized a silent protest in response.
Murashima is still thinking about her future. She plans to move to Washington in the fall, perhaps to do journalism. She is holding on to the tension between her faith and her sexuality and will find a new church home.
“I haven’t got my life under control yet and it’s good not to,” she said, “because I find God when I ask a question.”
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