I teach religion to university students and a new semester began one month ago. I stood before my classes and, among many other announcements and greetings, explained: “If you are gay, you are 150% welcome in this classroom.” I’ve said this before during other semesters but perhaps the stakes are higher this semester. Unbeknownst to me, one of my students tweeted my comments. He tweeted that he appreciated the inclusiveness. He later told me that the response to the tweet was mostly positive but there was some light push back. I checked out the tweet and one person wrote, “Why would he say that?” Another wrote, “Does he really need to say that?” There were other responses but let me explain why I welcome gay students in any given semester and respond briefly to the need to say that.
I grew up at a time when gays were invisible and yet part of everyday life. As young football players in the front yard whomever had the ball would throw it high in the air and the kid that caught it was the queer. The objective was to tackle him in hard-hitting style. The aim was to “Smear the Queer” and so the game was named. In Ogden, Utah we would “drag” Washington Boulevard on Friday or Saturday night and when we were done, we occasionally drove down “Queer Lane” which was a street on the west side of town that ran parallel to the Ogden River. That was where the gay and lesbian community gathered to “hook up”, or so the local lore went. Whatever the case, we were fascinated. Finally, from time-to-time we would call “Davey the Queer” and talk to him on the phone. He lived on the west side of town near the Weber River. He was a nice man—he told us he was gay—and he was very funny. He’d crack jokes laden with Gay innuendo and we would laugh like no other. I never met “Davey the Queer” in person. Years later he died alone in a mysterious house fire and the question, “Was this a murder of our gay friend?” lingered in the minds of me and my peers then and now. I cannot drive by the location of his home without thinking of Davey. I later learned that he was the brother of a woman in my Ogden ward. As you can see, gays were a very real part of my life and yet an invisible and quite mystical part of my life.
Furthermore, in the late 70’s and early 80’s it was important not to be gay and there were certain markers to avoid. For example, a guy could not wear a pastel colored shirt. If you wore anything pink or peach or turquois you would undoubtedly be asked by another guy, “Are you gay, or what?” Of course, it wasn’t a question about style at all. It was a statement about how forbidden homosexuality was in public.
Years later, at class reunions or through social media, I learned that fellow classmates and very good friends were gay the whole time. The rest of us were oblivious to their individual realities, needs and, no doubt, their deep struggles in a teenage world that was usually hostile toward them.
That was a different era. Today, Gays are not entirely closeted and a strong majority of Americans support same-sex marriage with or without the Supreme Court’s 2015 ruling. Perceptions of many members of the Church reflect this gentler and kinder cultural shift. “Smear the Queer” is, hopefully, never played in the front yard. I trust such a game would be particularly repugnant to most university students that are in their late teens and twenties. So why the need to welcome gay students in my university-level religion classes? Do I really need to say that?
To me, this is quite simple. I’ve never attended a Mormon worship service without being explicitly welcomed. Frequently, I feel very out of place in someone else’s ward. However, the bishop or one of his counselors stands at the pulpit to begin the meeting and says, “We’d like to welcome any of you that are visiting our ward this morning. Please know that we’re glad you are here with us today and we hope you feel welcome.” Similar visitor welcomes occur in Sunday school classes and priesthood meetings. In fact, I am frequently invited to stand and a member of that ward (like a brother or father-in-law) introduces me to the others. By the time my visit ends I have been generally welcomed once (sacrament meeting) and individually welcomed twice (Sunday School and priesthood). That is impressive and if you’re a Mormon you’ve experienced it. Feeling welcome matters and Mormons usually get that. In case a Mormon forgets this tradition of welcome-ness, the phrase “Visitors are Welcome” is prominently mounted for all to see on the outside wall of the church house. I take from this that there is an acknowledged possibility that visitors to ward meetings may feel less than comfortable. They need warmth, kindness, and friendliness. These are the lubricants that make all feel welcome.
Well, I buy into this practice. So at the beginning of every semester I ask myself, who might feel the least welcome in my religion class this semester? There are several answers: incoming freshmen, transfer students, newly returned missionaries, those with special needs, and so forth. I try to welcome them all—they are 150% welcome. But think about it, how isolated and lonely might a gay student feel in a religion class? I don’t know the answer to that question but I certainly want to err on the side of warmth and openness, especially on the heels of the Church’s recent implementation of policy. These students simply need to feel welcome. No names, no explicit admissions, just a general and clear welcome.
To those that may assert my approach is a slippery slope toward Sodom and Gomorrah I’d invite them to study that biblical text with greater care because the center of that narrative is not homosexuality but a coldness of heart toward the marginalized. Then I’d simply ask, “Do you remember the last time you felt insecure and apart from a crowd that you desired to join? How do you feel about the person that overwhelmed you with love and warmth in such a way that insecurities and fears melted away and you felt included in an instant?” I want to be that person as often as I can. I trust you do too.
I wish my favorite Primary song, “I’ll Walk with You”, were also in the main hymnal of the Church. I just think adults need to sing this song at least as often as children do. Part of that song includes the following lyrics:
Jesus walked away from none.
He gave his love to ev’ryone
So I will! I will!
Jesus blessed all he could see,
Then turned and said, “Come, follow me.”
And I will! I will!
I’ll walk with you. I’ll talk with you.
That’s how I’ll show my love for you.
(Children’s Songbook, 140)
This is the way I want to conduct my life. The classroom is no exception. And though I am far from perfect in this regard, I make every effort to raise the welcome banner to all.