After three years leading the Intercollegiate Adventist Gay-Straight Alliance Coalition (IAGC), its president, Andrews University student Eliel Cruz, has handed leadership over to Jefferson Clark, a senior public relations and international studies major at Southern Adventist University.
IAGC is an unsanctioned but growing network of Gay-Straight Alliances on Adventist college campuses in North America.
In 2011, when Eliel Cruz lived on the Andrews University campus, he never imaged he would have to turn to school administration for protection. However, Cruz said several incidents of on-campus sexual mistreatment made him worry about his personal safety. He had no choice but to ask for help. With the support of Dr. Nancy Carbonell, associate professor of Clinical Mental Health, Cruz warily approached the student life office where he received assurance that the situation would be taken care of. Cruz was skeptical. “I told them, I don’t trust you,” he said. He felt that past experiences gave him cause to doubt the promises of support. Despite his misgivings, the situation was taken care of as promised, Cruz said. He felt the incident marked a turning point for the LGBT community on campus.
Soon after, Dr. Carbonell invited Cruz to an off-campus meeting she planned for students to come together to talk about their sexual orientation, their struggles, and anything else they wanted to talk about.
An eclectic group attended that first meeting. Four in attendance had been suspended or expelled from their Adventist academies because of their sexual orientation. Seven attendees were close to committing suicide or had already attempted it, and one member drove around the block for thirty minutes before she collected enough courage to come inside.
“The meeting was a profound thing,” Cruz said. “It was the first time many of us could talk in such a candid space. For me, it was a spiritual moment. But people were scared to come forward because of their [traumatic] past experiences.”
One person in attendance described her experience at an Adventist academy; she was suspended because of her sexual orientation, and as a result, was moved from her dorm room to a different wing and a room without a roommate. She was also kicked off the soccer team.
The small group grew under Carbonell’s mentorship, and Cruz decided to approach the university’s administration again. This time his questions concerned campus policy. He brought a written proposal with him. “I asked them if they allowed LGBT’s on campus. They said that under social-concept stipulations, yes. So I told them, if you accept these students, then you need to offer them protection,” said Cruz.
According to Cruz, Andrews University was one of the first Adventist universities to codify protection for homosexual students in its Student Handbook.
“I think [the administration] realized that there was an entire group of people on campus that they had forgotten, but when it was published, people in the church were very upset.”
Around this time, Cruz had been in contact with Amador Jaojoco, then-president of Gay and Straight People (GASP) at Pacific Union College. Jaojoco presented the idea of a gay student alliance coalition.
“We knew of a support group at La Sierra, PUC, and Walla Walla. We knew of each other, and we talked sometimes on Facebook,” said Cruz. “But AJ [Jaojoco] thought we should have a network. So he created the name [Intercollegiate Adventist GSA Coalition] and created the group, and [we] ran with it.”
That summer, in 2012, the leaders of each group met for the first time in person and created the network that is now IAGC. They crafted a mission statement, listed goals, and when they returned to their respective institutions, they did so with a network of support spanning several Adventist campuses. Eliel Cruz was selected as president.
In April 2014, Andrews University hosted its first LBGT program, entitled “A Conversation With LGBT Students,” which featured a variety of LBGT speakers. The program included testimonies, a panel question and answer session, and a discussion on how to engage in conversation with LBGT individuals in the Seventh-day Adventist community.
“Our campuses are leading the conversation in the Seventh-day Adventist church because we are having to create a practical approach that the church hasn’t yet provided to the LGBT community” said Cruz.
The program was a success. Over 600 people showed up, filling the room twenty minutes before the event began and extending into three overflow rooms.
“People were sitting on the stairs and standing in the wings to watch,” Cruz said.
While the AU event succeeded, it was also difficult to pull off. As soon as the posters went up advertising “A Conversation with LGBT Students,” people began calling the AU Student Life Department, questioning what was going to happen in the meetings.
“People were very worried,” said Cruz. He confessed that the two weeks leading up to the program were some of the most stressful ever during his involvement in the LGBT conversation. “It took a lot of negotiating and listening; it took a lot of meetings and phone calls.”
Because IAGC is not an officially recognized group, none of their logos were allowed on advertisements or programs.
Today IAGC is expanding. Seven Adventist campuses make up the coalition: Andrews University, Pacific Union College, Southern Adventist University, Union College, Walla Walla University, and Washington Adventist University. Loma Linda University students have expressed an interest in IAGC, but do not meet formally as a group because scheduling difficulties.
Students on three more Adventist campuses are in the process of establishing groups within the IAGC network. IAGC will list those campuses when their groups move out of the planning stage and are officially established.
IAGC chapters meet under varying circumstances. The Andrews University group meets off-campus in someone’s home, while PUC’s GASP meets in a classroom and takes minutes. Though different in that regard, a common mission statement unites the chapters:
“The IAGC is a student-run organization that seeks to bridge the LGBTQ community and the Seventh-day Adventist community within the academic setting. The IAGC seeks to promote understanding, compassion, education, awareness and community for those who wish to integrate their faith with their sexual and gender identities. The members of the IAGC strive to create a community of fellowship that affirms diversity while sowing seeds of love.”
IAGC works to help those within its community. The group claims responsibility for helping one of its members when that individual fell into financial trouble. The group has provided a tuition scholarship for another of its members. When one member sought asylum in the United States, IAGC helped to provide a lawyer.
As the group has grown in membership and scope, so has criticism. IAGC members have been accused of joining the network so they can use it as a dating service. Others worry that the group pushes theology that contradicts Seventh-day Adventist beliefs. “We have people who want to remain celibate and we have people who are in same-sex relationships,” says Cruz. “We don’t promote a certain theology.”
During the summer of 2013 Cruz chose to step down. In his place Southern Adventist University's Jefferson Clark will lead the organization with Daniel Perez from La Sierra University as treasurer and Andrews University student Jonathan Doram as secretary.
Clark begins his work with enthusiasm: “My goal is to first create awareness of the fact that there are actually LGBT students on Seventh-day Adventist university campuses – students who are scared and who are fighting internally for multiple reasons.” He hopes to foster learning about the LGBT community and to foster openness and dialogue.
Clark is careful to point out that IAGC is not affiliated with or sponsored by the Seventh-day Adventist Church or any of its official institutions. The purpose of the coalition is not to change policy or theological belief. His focus is on helping LGBT students find their place on Adventist campuses.
“One of the most important things people need to understand is that there is a big difference between the words ‘acceptance’ and ‘approval,’ especially on such controversial topics. Unfortunately, these two words have become synonyms in the minds of too many people, and I hope to change that.”
Rachel Logan is a writing intern for Spectrum.
This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at http://spectrummagazine.org/node/6358