“Still A Lot Of Work To Do”: One TWU Spotlight (Mars' Hill Feature)

- Chrisaleen Ciro

April 8, 2020

When I sat down with one of the founders of One TWU, Matthew Wigmore (‘16), to gain an understanding of the history of the organization, we began by discussing the broader community’s perceptions of the advocacy group. The advocacy’s group relationship with Trinity Western University (TWU) is tenuous: as a non-affiliated group, One TWU is prohibited from putting up posters or advertising around campus. Therefore, the organization relies heavily on social media to expand and preserve its network.


At first, Wigmore acknowledges that the group occupies an inherently controversial position on campus. “One [TWU] has made some great PR moves. . . But we've also had a fair bit of backlash. Does that preclude LGBTQ2s+ students from the privileges of other students?” He is likely referring to the multiplicity of social media skirmishes that have taken place in the six years since its founding, which were especially heated during TWU protracted legal battle to establish a school of law.


He rolls his eyes, concluding: “I can’t have conversations with people who don’t even know how to have a conversation.”


When Wigmore reminisces about his years at TWU, he says that he has mostly fond memories, especially of faculty members and fellow students. However, the generally positive experiences are marred by the ever-present awareness that the institution’s response to his sexuality could have threatened his future there. Wigmore recalls moving through the space on campus, not entirely able to rule out the possibility that he, or other LGBTQ+ students, might be expelled. “We just had no idea how the Community Covenant was going to be applied,” he said.


By the beginning of his second year, Wigmore knew that he was going to come out. He had already been through conversion therapy mandated by Exodus International and was no longer concerned about the orthopraxical implications of affirming theology. He recalls being on the receiving end of derogatory comments––though few were made to his face.


He remembers benefiting from the example of other, increasingly visible, affirming Christians, who he says “smelled more like Jesus than some of the people in [his] classes.” Wigmore was more concerned about the institution’s response. He asked himself, “What [will be] the implications of this?”


At the time, Wigmore felt that the only “foolproof” way to go about this would be to “get a press shield.” He wanted to know that in a worst case scenario situation––if TWU took action against him––it would be on the record. He met with reporters to share his experience as a gay student at TWU.


In 2014, Wigmore and fellow students, Bryan Sandberg and David Evans-Carlson (an alumnus), founded One TWU with the intention of providing a safe space for queer students on campus. Wigmore recalls intensely appreciating the solidarity and awareness of the presence of other members of the LGBTQ+ community on campus that came from that group.


The following spring, with campus becoming increasingly interested in a dialogue about evolving perspectives on faith and sexuality, the Office of the President partnered with the Gender Studies Institute to host a discussion between Justin Lee and Ron Belgau. Lee, who had published the book Torn: Rescuing the Gospel from the Gays-vs.-Christians Debate the previous year, was to share from his perspective as an LBGTQ+ Christian. Belgau was invited to share his perspective as a “Side B” Christian, someone who interprets scripture to mandate that members of the LGBTQ+ community should remain celibate. Unfortunately, at the last minute, Belgau was unable to attend, and the organizers hosted Lee off-campus at a nearby church.


The event was eventually rescheduled, and nearly 1000 people attended. While TWU staff did hand out pamphlets restating the institution’s traditional stance on marriage, they also allowed––and funded––the open conversation.


In the aftermath of the event, Wigmore feels it was clear that administration was communicating to queer students: “You are welcome here, but we need to remain in control of the narrative.” Student Life, when asked about its perspective on One TWU’s relationship with the institution, neglected to comment.


In fall of 2016, after the original founders, including Sandberg and Wigmore, had moved on, the group seemed to struggle to generate regular attendance. However, the discussion continued on other platforms, especially social media. TWU’s student newspaper, Mars’ Hill, published several pieces that generated a significant amount of dialogue about the historic experience of queer students on campus—many of which brought serious accusations against the institution. As a result, TWUSA opted to partner with then-leaders of One TWU to host an event sharing the experiences of queer alumni in the community.


Current student and One TWU leader, Queenie Rabanes remarks about that time, “One TWU felt like a group that was othered, and it felt like people saw One TWU as a group of strangers.” She feels that the Night of Stories events, which continued after the first event in 2016, have marked significant shifts in campus culture: “Two years ago at One TWU’s Night of Stories, all the members who shared, but one, shared parts of their lives anonymously. This past November, all the people who shared were current students who shared publicly, except for one.”


The following year, desiring to increase its profile on campus, One TWU launched the “We went here too” and “We go here too” campaigns, which depicted both alumni and current anonymous students and included contact information for the university. Due to the fact that TWU, like many North American universities, has strict postering guidelines, the originally unsanctioned posters were taken down, ostensibly in adherence to policy. However, according to students recalling the event, several of the posters were “torn up and thrown away” and otherwise vandalized, by unknown individuals. In response to the rising controversy, Student Life described the posters as a “great resource” and immediately agreed to stamp them.


The following December, TWU’s supreme court appeal for a law school was heard, and the campus was seemingly glued to the live-streamed proceedings. Staff, students, alumni, and donors would have to wait until June to hear the result. In the end, the court took issue with the indiscriminate, and somewhat vague, jurisdiction of the Community Covenant, and TWU lost its legal battle.


Following the verdict in June, TWU announced it would no longer require students to sign the Community Covenant. Wigmore said that the “reversal of the Community Covenant” had a significant impact on the organization of One TWU and its members. Though the change in policy tacitly allows the organization more leeway to operate without students fearing for their status on campus, alumni and current students agree that there is still a significant amount of work to be done. Wigmore urges us to remember that “this is a school that has chosen a poor relationship with [queer students] . . . yet expects reconciliation with next-to-no effort.”


Current student and leader of One TWU, Micah Bron comments: “As queer students have become more visible, [and] as have the injustices, One TWU has had to step up in areas of advocacy. This is still an area we are growing in, but our hope is that queer students will eventually be able to exist without the bullying and discrimination they currently experience.”


Currently, there are over 200 members of One TWU’s various networks including just over 50 current students, though not everyone regularly attends the weekly meetings. The leaders have also met with other organizers in the broader Langley community to attempt to establish a possible opportunity for partnership. One of these leaders, Lis Browning, who uses they/them pronouns, even got practicum course credit from their work with the organization.


One barrier going forward, identified by Wigmore and other leaders of One TWU, is the lack of “legitimacy.” As demonstrated by the postering fiasco in 2017, One TWU is dependent on TWUSA and other institutions on campus to advertise or coordinate event space. This has often, according to some members, required creative maneuvering in advocacy efforts.


Another unique aspect of One TWU’s organizational culture is ongoing––and often enthusiastic––participation of alumni. However, Wigmore acknowledges that alumni and current students have very different needs. He emphasizes that his role is to leverage this network for the benefit of current students. “Having started something really powerful on campus, I feel guilty leaving it behind, especially on vulnerable students. But 100 [percent] of what happens on campus is student-[run].”


He clarifies: “We figured out we couldn’t serve every single student and every single alumni. Students are the most vulnerable and in the most difficult position . . . they are [the organization’s] first priority.”


When asked how students view alumni participation in One TWU, a current leader says: “I find the requisite place of alumni (as with the older members of any community) to be that of holding the history . . . This network can function, if utilized (and honoured) well, to keep the stories alive and inform our responses to current campus issues.”


The leader goes on, “We do not cease to be members of One TWU when we graduate.”


For the better part of a decade, One TWU has worked to function as a safe space for members of the LGBTQ+ community on TWU’s Langley campus. It seems, despite high turnover and intense scrutiny, to have outlived similar organizations on Christian campuses in the United States, including the now defunct One Wheaton, at TWU President Dr. Husband’s former employer, Wheaton College. The future will tell if the organization is able to transcend its existing barriers and continue to function as an effective force for change at TWU.