The Pride Center is hosting a series of discussions on faith and sexuality. “From the outside and historically, the two have opposed one another, but when people dive deeper into that, they can see that they’re not necessarily — and don’t have to be — one or the other: queer-identified or religious,” said Adam Serafin, assistant coordinator for the Cross Cultural Centers.
For a long time, Bre Goetz didn’t think she could be gay and a good Christian.
Goetz, now an academic adviser in the College of Liberal Arts, tried to fight it — she moved away from her now-wife and even consulted a Christian therapist sponsored by her church.
“I always felt like I had to choose,” she said. “It was this constant cycle of head, heart, head, of lust, guilt, despair.”
It took approximately three years of Bible study, personal research and thoughtful contemplation, she said, to get to the point where she “could say, ‘I’m gay. I’m in this relationship, and I’m a Christian, and I’m okay with it.’”
Now, Goetz is hoping her journey can inspire others.
She was the co-facilitator for the Pride Center’s first dialogue session on faith and spirituality in October. The center is looking to create a safe place where its students can explore the intersection of their sexuality and spiritual identities.
“I wanted to be a facilitator because I wanted all of my suffering to be for a reason,” Goetz said. “I imagine there are students at Cal Poly who would identify themselves as a Christian first, and then realize they’re gay, and that’s a little traumatic and really hard to navigate. If there is a way that my story might help somebody process or reconcile their own faith and spirituality faster, it might give it a purpose.”
Adam Serafin, assistant coordinator for the Cross Cultural Centers, says that the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender (LGBT) movement and the religious community are often pitted against each other.
“From the outside and historically, the two have opposed one another, but when people dive deeper into that, they can see that they’re not necessarily — and don’t have to be — one or the other: queer-identified or religious,” Serafin said.
He hopes the monthly Queer Faith and Spirituality Dialogue Series will be a springboard for conversation about faith within Cal Poly’s LGBT community.
“There are students that have a faith or spiritual background that sometimes feel like when they’re with their queer-identified friends or that community, that they have to leave that behind,” Serafin said. “We really want, as the Pride Center, to celebrate and affirm all aspects of their identity, and that includes their spiritual or religious identities.”
The series isn’t a Bible study or a fellowship. It is open to students of any, or no, religious background. A guest facilitator leads each session. The facilitator tells their story, and then the dialogue opens up to participants who can respond or share their own journey.
“There’s a ton of power in story and narrative, and so much of faith and spiritual tradition is rooted in story, so that was a pretty easy go-to — to root this sensitive, emotionally charged topic in storytelling and discussion,” Serafin said.
A seeker’s story
When Josiah Pak came to Cal Poly, he realized he hadn’t addressed broader identity questions about his gender or sexual orientation.
It was those kinds of questions that brought him to the first dialogue.
Pak, a 2013 art and design alumnus, grew up in the Korean church.
“I don’t think it’s necessarily what they said, it’s just the general lack of anyone saying anything about it at all,” Pak said. “In the Korean culture and the church in particular, sexuality is not something really talked about — sexual orientation and sex are just kept a lot more private, even more so than you’d find in the American church.”
Within his conservative Christian upbringing, sexual orientation was never really discussed.
“There was an understanding if you were anything besides the norm, that wouldn’t be accepted within the church,” he said. “If it’s anything from what they taught you in church, it was automatically deemed wrong, and that viewpoint kind of prevented me from exploring and learning more about sexuality.”
InterVarsity Christian Fellowship became Pak’s faith-based community at Cal Poly.
“Through Intervarsity, I started to realize that the Christian image — the Christian man — is a lot broader than I believed it to be,” he said. “A Christian male isn’t just buff, reading his Bible while being athletic and super manly, and it’s okay to not be that because God created so many types of people. That idea helped me really address my own identity issues and my personal questions regarding sexuality and gender, and it gave me the courage to start really seeking what it means to be an individual within Christianity.”
This conversation and questioning, he said, is fluid and never-ending. For this reason, Pak said the dialogue series is “important in many ways.”
“People who deserve to feel love, that deserve to feel the whole love that is promised by God, aren’t given the opportunity to because they might feel trapped within the church or, and I can speak to this personally, they might not feel entitled to God’s love or the love of their community because they’re struggling with their sexuality,” he said. “I think, especially with my own story, that’s one of the things that led me away from the church, believing the lie that if you’re questioning your sexuality, you have no place in the church, or within God’s plan or God’s love.”
It is important to take the conversation outside of these faith communities, he said.
“A lot of the time within the faith communities, you’ll find people who are more biased or might have ulterior motives, but a place like the Pride Center’s dialogue is really cool because it offers a safe, unbiased space where people can sit, discuss and just listen about different stories of people in different walks of life,” Pak said.
… All part of a bigger story
While the emphasis of the dialogue series is on the LGBT community and their stories, Serafin said, a continued conversation about the relationship between the LGBT and faith-based communities is necessary.
This conversation is set against the backdrop of a national shift in opinion — public policy, societal norms and religious opinions are all rapidly evolving.
Cal Poly in particular has a large religious community. Approximately 1,000 students show up to Cru’s weekly meetings, making Cal Poly’s chapter “one of the largest in the country, definitely in the top three or four of the nation,” said Cru staff member Matthew Melendrez.
But with so many students, he said, it’s difficult to monitor or control how Cru-identified students interact with the LGBT community on campus.
“We’re trying to be a more inclusive community, but you have 1,000 people with 1,000 different beliefs, different viewpoints, different views of scripture,” Melendrez said.
“We are trying to bridge gaps between Cru and groups on campus that haven’t historically felt welcomed by Cru, other Christian groups or churches,” he added in an email. “There has been lots of tension between the LGBT community and Cru and our hopes is that we see reconciliation between the two groups so that those from the LGBT community, and any other student, will see Cru as a safe and inclusive place to discover God and live out their faith. This is going to take time with the history between the groups and with the amount of students involved in both communities. Personally, I hope that those from the LGBT community will help us figure out how we can better love and be more inclusive.”
Others in Cru are on the same page.
This past spring, when a few different people came to campus with homophobic, religious-based signs and preachings, some members of Cru reached out to the Pride Center. A few brought coffee cake and wrote a letter. When a photo of the gesture was posted on Facebook, Serafin says it got upwards of 600 likes.
But chaplain Berkeley Johnson of Canterbury SLO, an LGBT-inclusive episcopal ministry that has a Cal Poly fellowship, said because so many religious groups publicly don’t accept the LGBT community, there is a sense that all don’t.
“I hope we’ve progressed from that,” Johnson said, “because we, as a ministry, recognize that there’s an overarching theme throughout scripture of liberation from oppression and liberation from bondage. Throughout scripture, God is on the side of the oppressed and the marginalized.”
Senior pastor Marj Funk-Pihl of Mt. Carmel Lutheran Church and Cal Poly’s Lutheran Campus Ministry said the LGBT perspective can help fellowship members learn.
“… (A)s these young people are coming into their sexual identities in college, usually around that 18, 19, 20 mark, they have to really consider how their spirituality and sexuality go together,” she said, “and through their thinking and pondering of that, they really give us a gift and encourage all of us to think about that and help us understand because, for everyone, spirituality and sexuality have to go together somehow.”
Nationally, though, the Episcopal Church and Evangelical Lutheran Church in America have formal affirming policies, but policies vary widely. But the official policies of Catholicism, Orthodox Judaism and others explicitly do not support queer-identified people.
This forces some religious students to still question … Gay or God?
The next Queer Faith and Spirituality Dialogue Series will be held Nov. 19 in the Pride Center, starting at 6 p.m.