Biola University professor Erik Thoennes equated having an LGBTQ identity with being a racist at a school-sponsored panel in September of 2012. Audio of his comments was only recently released. Because LGBTQ students are at risk for expulsion at Biola, it has taken months for them to organize. However, with the help of openly-queer alum Jos Charles, a petition was finally started—demanding an apology from Thoennes for his inflammatory comments and a commitment from the university to include pro-LGBT voices of faith in future discussions on campus.
The Biola Queer Underground is an anonymous support network of current students at the university. To make a point, Thoennes asked audience members to imagine what it would be like if Biola sponsored a Racist Underground, and then proceeded to read from the Queer Underground's mission statement—swapping LGBT for racist: "Our racist identities which are integral to who we are, are being questioned in terms of their morality," he said. The crowd began to laugh.
When asked by a student in attendance why no pro-LGBT Christian voices were included on the panel, Thoennes responded: “I wouldn’t want a pro-racist person on this panel if the question were racism," and then continued: "It's a sin!" The biggest laugh came from the crowd when Thoennes lampooned Disneyland's annual LGBT day. "There is no other sin I know of that has parades celebrating it and days at Disneyland. Can you imagine having Dishonesty Day at Disneyland?"
Thoennes was named Biola's professor of the year in 2003 and 2007.
A current gay student at Biola explained in an interview that, "people talk about [the LGBT community] as if it's this terrible thing without taking into consideration the fact that there are gay students here." Fearful of institutional consequences that might come from sharing his story, the student asked that his named not be used, even though he is out to and has the support of family and friends. "I shouldn't have to leave because of who I love," he said.
Jos Charles—who graduated in 2010, and started the petition—was closeted while a student. "Watching other people voice their opinions and not being able to speak takes its toll. There is a lot of shame," Charles said. "Silence is its own kind of oppression."
Charles primarily started the petition to bring awareness to the presence of Biola's LGBTQ students and alumni. "An apology doesn't change much, but hopefully it brings awareness to the administration that we're here, that we're not going away. We are Biola, not the administration," Charles said. "People at Biola are LGBTQ and are allies, and we have a voice. We want our voice to be heard and respected." Charles works at Genesis Associates, a design firm in the LA area, and is preparing to pursue an MFA in poetry.
Biola is not the only school to encounter this kind of intolerance from administration. Students at Christian colleges across the country have faced similar struggles. In the last year alone, LGBTQ clubs at Point Loma Nazarene University, the Catholic University of America, and Patrick Henry College were denied their charters for conflicting with school policy on sexual orientation and gender identity.
Sign and share Charles' petition to stand with the LGBTQ students of Biola as they call for a much needed and tellingly overdue apology. LGBTQ students deserve support, care, and safety at all colleges and universities, regardless of their religious affiliation.