Calvin LGBTQ+ alumni advocate for a more welcoming college after gay staff is pushed out

By: - March 30, 2022 8:25 am

Calvin University campus | Allison R. Donahue

When Calvin University, a Christian Reformed college in Grand Rapids, cut ties with the Center for Social Research (CSR) after 52 years, Nicole Sweda couldn’t help but feel she had a part in that. 

In January, Sweda, 24, was working as a research associate for the CSR, which was created in 1970 to help assist professors with research, when she was called into a meeting to meet with University Provost Noah Toly. 

During the meeting, she was asked two questions: Had Sweda been married to a woman since the fall of 2021 and had she been living with a woman since May 2020?

The answer to both questions was yes. 

Nicole Sweda talks about being pushed out of her job at Calvin University once the administration found out she is married to a woman. | Kayla Norris

“I had never met the provost before, I had no reason to meet the provost before, so I thought that it was probably not good,” Sweda said. “I pretty much immediately had suspicions that this is what it was going to be.”

Calvin University’s policy on human sexuality prohibits sexual relations outside of marriage, which the university only recognizes as “a covenantal union between a man and a woman.”

Under that policy, the university has the right to fire an employee for being in a same-sex marriage, although it has been legal nationwide since 2015. Title IX protects university staff and students in many discrimination cases like this one, but because Calvin University is a Christian Reformed school, it has a religious exemption for Title IX.

But the university didn’t fire Sweda. Instead, the university announced in February that the CSR “will become its own legal entity independent of Calvin University” to “serve a broader range of clients and grow in ways it couldn’t as part of the institution.”

Calvin University did not respond to a request for comment on the issue or whether Sweda’s marriage to her wife, Annica, had anything to do with the split. 

But even after the split, Sweda decided to leave the CSR, after working there since she was a student at Calvin, because she wanted to be able to speak openly about her experience and better support LGBTQ+ students at the university. 

“There’s been a huge reaction from queer students, and frankly, it’s pretty traumatic,” Sweda said. “I think queer students are realizing to what extent Calvin is willing to really exclude queer students and queer staff. There’s a lot of people who are feeling very hurt and ostracized.”

In response to Sweda’s experience, LGBTQ+ alumni are rallying now to call on the university to end their anti-gay policies and to help raise money to better support current LGBTQ+ students at Calvin. 

A GoFundMe fundraiser has currently raised over $6,500 dollars that will go directly to LGBTQ+ students at Calvin, Sweda said. 

Calvin alumni Lindsay Owens and Grace Swanson started a petition to “demand that Calvin University ends its discriminatory practices and policies against LGBTQ+ folks in the Calvin community,” including faculty, staff, students and potential hires. 

The policies in question include prohibiting staff and faculty from being in same-sex marriages or sexual partnerships, prohibiting LGBTQ+ students from working as resident assistants if they are in “same-sex relationships” and refusing to allow staff and faculty allies to publicly advocate for LGBTQ+ rights without repercussions and career consequences.  

Calvin University Center for Social Research | Allison R. Donahue

Owens struggled to find a community where they felt completely supported as a queer Latinx student. 

“I felt like the school wasn’t built for me and it didn’t think of me, for the most part. There were barriers,” Owens said. “I didn’t see teachers who looked like me, who had relationships like me, who had family experiences like I did. It felt like I was making my own path and I didn’t want to have to do that.”

But Owens didn’t realize that their experience would be like that before attending Calvin. On paper, the university seemed to be welcoming to LGBTQ+ students and offered some support opportunities that other Christian schools didn’t. 

Rickie Kreuzer, advocacy director at OutFront Kalamazoo, one of Michigan’s largest LGBTQ+ community centers, has been working with religious institutions to help them become more inclusive for LGBTQ+ people. 

Many churches state they are welcoming to all, but won’t marry LGBTQ+ people, allow LGBTQ+ people in church leadership and won’t provide any resources to LGBTQ+ people, Kreuzer said.

“They need to post their positions on LGBTQ+ issues plainly on their website so that nobody joins a ‘welcoming’ church and later finds out they will face discrimination at every turn. The same expectation of transparency can be applied to religious colleges and universities,” Kreuzer said. “It isn’t at all welcoming to allow LGBTQ+ people as students or staff and then turn around and treat them as less than.”

Calvin has a Sexuality and Gender Awareness (SAGA) organization, which “is a peer education group of LGBTQ+ students and straight students who support each other and educate the campus.”

Owens was a part of SAGA for some time during their four years at Calvin, but they felt that even that space felt “othering” because there weren’t many other members who were queer, trans students of color. 

“But there is this broader feeling that LGBT students at Calvin are only allowed counseling and therapy-like places, that there is something intrinsically wrong with them,” Owens said. “Even though the schools says ‘you all are fine, except when you act on your sexual orientation.’”

Swanson, who is also a queer alum of Calvin, said that there seems to be a number of groups that are LGBTQ+ inclusive, but “then you get on campus and that’s only semi-true.”

“It’s totally supportive of LGBT celibate people, but that doesn’t fully embrace queer people in general,” Swanson said. “The sexual ethics that Calvin University holds prohibits sex outside of marriage of any kind. You’ll find on the whole campus a level of purity culture, especially when it comes to queer students.”

Swanson said that the university’s policies around how staff and faculty are allowed to support and affirm LGBTQ+ students and their relationships hindered the SAGA organization. 

Calvin University | Allison R. Donahue

“There was only so much support that the staff member can provide given the university’s guidelines, so even if that person wanted to express support, they were not fully able to support relationships,” Swanson said. “That’s definitely not their fault. It’s the fault of the university for having that policy, but it just means that a space that is represented as inclusive and a safe haven becomes this wishy-washy middle ground where people don’t feel safe.”

There have been a couple of instances at Calvin where Owens and Sweda felt like LGBTQ+ students were especially ostracized. 

Owens said that one year, National Coming Out Day fell on a day when potential students were visiting the campus with their parents. In support of National Coming Out Day, “you are loved” was written in chalk on the sidewalk, but the administration ordered that the messages would be washed off to not offend visiting parents. 

In March 2021, Calvin University made headlines for a table set up on campus that said “LGBTQ+ is sin. Change my mind.”

The university responded saying the tabling event “failed to live up to our community’s high standards.”

“The church teaches that orientation is not a sin and that lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people – like all people – are created in God’s image and, as valued members of the human family, should be treated with respect, grace, understanding, and love.  The church also teaches, and Calvin affirms, that sexual intimacy is a gift from God to be celebrated in marriage between a man and a woman,” University President Michael K. Le Roy wrote in a letter to students.

Despite what each of these alumni describe as “complicated” relationships with the university, they haven’t given up hope that the university can change and be a better place for LGBTQ+ students. 

“I have a lot of hope for them,” Swanson said. “I think that it’s totally within the realm of possibility for them to become more inclusive. I think that would be a long walk. We have a lot of ground to cover, don’t get me wrong. It will not be easy and it will not be short, but I feel a sense of responsibility to protect students who are at Calvin now and are experiencing this. I don’t want more students to go to Calvin and experience the Calvin I experience.”

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Allison R. Donahue
Allison R. Donahue

Allison R. Donahue covers education, women's issues and LGBTQ issues. Previously, she was a suburbs reporter at the St. Cloud Times in St. Cloud, Minn., covering local education and government. As a graduate of Grand Valley State University, she has previous experience as a freelance researcher for USA Today and an intern with WOOD TV-8. When she is away from her desk, she spends her time going to concerts, comedy shows or getting lost on hikes in different places around the world.

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