By Gabrielle Lee
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One day when I was a student at Whitworth University, I was invited to a secret meeting for gay students on campus- it was called "Safe Space.” It was invite-only (via text or word-of-mouth), and confidentiality was key.
I was nervous to go, worried that one of my straight friends would see me and question what we were doing. There were about 20 or so of us crammed into a tiny 2-person dorm room. I would not return to another meeting for the remainder of my time at WU.
This was in the year 2013. Yes, you read that correctly. Not 1963. Not even 2003.
This year, a group of brave Whitworth students have shone a light on the university’s hiring practices, which they claim do not protect the LGBTQ+ community. The group, Signal Safe Space, created a Change.org petition that has garnered over 1,600 signatures of students, staff, and faculty in support.
Over the course of the past few months I have had a handful of current WU students reach out to me, as well as some staff and faculty. Hearing their stories has been heartbreaking. Some students were so consumed by the conflict and stress that they weren’t able to eat. Staff were afraid of losing their jobs. They all expressed that the university campus did not feel like a safe place.
I graduated from Whitworth in 2014 with a degree in Journalism and Mass Communication, but just barely.
Riddled with stress, severe anxiety, and recovering from a skateboarding accident, I was almost unable to complete one of my courses required for graduation.
My Whitworth professors in the Communication and Arts department were my saving grace during one of the most trying times of my life. One of my favorite professors was an openly gay man.
During my sophomore year, I was suffering from major depressive disorder (MDD), suicidal, and was consumed with the idea that my being gay was my ticket to a lifetime of disappointment and sadness. I even considered dedicating my life to full-time missionary work to avoid the expectations of marriage and having children. I was already a disappointment and thought maybe some good deeds would make up for it.
Teachers have always been a safe place for me.
Let me be clear- I love my family and they’re incredible people. And- as a kid who didn’t feel affirmed in my queerness at home or Church, I found comfort in knowing there were adults at school who had different ideas from the people I spent most of my time with. Different experiences, perspectives, and knowledge of the world.
I got swim lessons from my elementary school teachers, I learned how to write creatively by my middle school teachers, and I was taught how to lead with unapologetic confidence by my high school leadership teacher, John Hogg. I was taught how to think critically and write honestly by my college professors.
I’ve always loved learning. I have a near photographic memory when it comes to topics I’m actually interested in. Asking questions and doing research has been my outlet to understanding the world, other people, and myself.
College, however, was very difficult for me. My public school education did not prepare me for the level of work that I had at Whitworth, and I had a difficult time keeping up with my peers. I also had undiagnosed ADHD and was unaware at the time that I was mildly autistic.
At Whitworth, just as I had done at every school before that, I hit the ground running and tried to get involved with everything they had to offer. As a freshmen, I was nominated to be our dorm’s ‘Homecoming Queen,’ and stepped in as Dorm Senator when ours left second semester to study abroad. I helped my friends spearhead programs like STEP 7, a program focused on racial justice education, was a photographer for the Whitworthian student newspaper, and became president of the Communications club. I was an activist and got involved with the protest of a local bar in downtown Spokane.
I was also employed by the university and as part of my work study, was a student ambassador. I gave tours of the campus in-between classes, hosted prospective high school students overnight in my dorm room, and spent evenings calling families and high school students who were interested in attending Whitworth.
Being one of the few students of color on campus, I was also featured on many of the online and print publications that the university published. My friends would lovingly tease me about being ‘the face’ of Whitworth.
My classmates and I focused on issues of racial discrimination and rape culture, but we veered from queer issues. I was on a first-name basis with then-president Beck Taylor. At the time, I trusted him and felt like he supported our efforts.
Looking back, I can see how I was really fulfilling a lifetime of trying to overachieve in an attempt to make up for the fact that I was gay- sinful, evil, bad.
When I was a senior at Whitworth University, I finally started to accept the fact that I was gay- that this part of myself wasn't ever going to change. Despite this, I would eventually go back into the closet for another three years. It wasn’t until I was 24 that I publicly came out with my then-partner.
I wrote an article about the current turmoil at Whitworth, and posted it to LinkedIn. Here are some comments from my fellow classmates:
One of the prospective high school students who I hosted and stayed in touch with, reached out the other week. She said that while she was glad she had met me, she was “so so glad” that she ended up choosing Seattle University (SU) over Whitworth, as she also identifies as gay.
“I would have stayed in the closet had I would have chosen Whitworth. “One day on Seattle U’s campus, the walkways were lined with rainbow flags. I sobbed.”
Many of my queer classmates from WU have reached out to me to discuss the happenings at the university regarding queer issues. There is also a private group on Facebook for alumni in support of a more inclusive campus.
I am one of a handful of alumni that have publicly stated that I will not donate to our alma mater unless they change their policies regarding the protection of LGBTQ staff and students. I submitted my story to the zine publication that students recently published and shared the link to their petition (now at over 1600 signatures) with my Whitworth colleagues.
Even though we were not an open and affirming institution, My Whitworth professors loved me, affirmed me, supported me. I sat in their offices and sobbed. They told me that everything was going to be okay, that I would get through this.
That I wasn’t bad.
As a now-30 year-old alum, I look at what is happening at Whitworth and I’m absolutely devastated. They’re being brave, and bold and putting themselves on the line for what they believe in. They’re pushing for change that we never dreamed was possible.
Whitworth's queer students, staff and faculty deserve to feel not only safe, but celebrated. Enough is enough. Let us live.
To my professors Ron Pyle, James McPherson, Erica Salkin, and others (you know who you are)