Twenty years ago, The King’s University in Edmonton found notoriety after it fired staff member Delwin Vriend for being gay – a decision that would lead to the recognition of LGBTQ rights under Canadian law. Now, LGBTQ students at the small Christian university in Edmonton have their own groups and celebrate their identity on campus.
SPEAK (Sexuality, Pride and Equality Alliance at King’s), a support and social group for LGBTQ students, and its activist branch, SPEAK OUT, have been around on campus for about five years. “Over the course of the last 20-plus years, the [campus] community has kind of evolved,” says Scott Key, SPEAK faculty adviser and associate dean in the department of education. Today, the university has about 900 students, and not all of them identify as Christian, or even religious. “We want to be inclusive and provide a safe space for students who identify in a variety of ways, in sexuality and in gender,” Dr. Key says.
Emma Van Arragon, 21, says that SPEAK has made her life easier as a Christian lesbian. She has been involved in SPEAK since her first year on campus. This year, she was a part of the university’s first Pride Week, which SPEAK held in March. “It wasn’t anything too fancy because we are in a Christian university, so we still have to be a little more subtle than other universities might be,” she says. The group held a different event each day. They had information booths, a button-making table, a speaker on homophobia, transphobia and colonialism. Ms. Van Arragon and another SPEAK member also spoke in chapel about their experiences as LGBTQ students.
“Being LGBTQ and Christian is a really weird place to be,” she says. “Obviously you’re going to face backlash from the Christian angle, but there’s also a lot of people in the LGBTQ community who are hostile towards religion – sometimes for very good reason – or who don’t understand. So you’re sort of caught between two worlds, but you’re not exactly belonging to either.” SPEAK offers a space where these students “can just exist without having to constantly explain one part of their identity or another,” she says.
SPEAK was also a major part of Shylo Rosborough’s life this year. “SPEAK has given me a space where I knew there were other LGBTQ Christians. Especially in a Christian university, you never know who is affirming or accepting. So, this group kind of cleared the water,” says Mr. Rosborough, a 20-year-old transgender man.
Mr. Rosborough and Ms. Van Arragon worked hard on outreach, visibility and group events to build SPEAK back up this year after the group’s returning members graduated. “We increased by 10 people in one year, which is the biggest jump I’ve ever seen,” Mr. Rosborough says. Pride Week, he says, “was the last hurrah” for the school year.
The group will be back next year, now at 12 members strong. “We’re here and we’re staying,” Mr. Rosborough says. “We had a lot of support from the staff and students. There were a few people that didn’t like it, but they didn’t bring us down.”