The Biggest Loser

Devon Van Essen

The Church of the Nazarene is missing out on all the gifts that queer people have to offer.

As an English professor for twelve years at a Nazarene university, I had the privilege to witness thousands of bright, creative, interesting students enter my classroom. I discussed literature with them, read their essays, and met with them in my office. Outside of class, I attended their performances, cheered their softball games, visited their art exhibits and debates, and passed by as they talked, laughed, and flirted in the halls. What a blessing to share in some small part of their lives.

They were the children of Nazarene pastors, district superintendents, and congregants, many from the cradle. They were also young people from a variety of other denominational or religious backgrounds or from no religious background. I too was one of those students once, having been raised Free Methodist, then educated in a private Christian high school before coming to this Nazarene university. For whatever reason, we had all ended up here, experiencing a Nazarene education, Nazarene chapels, and the potential for each of us to become lifelong members of the Church of the Nazarene.

Some of these students were also gay, bisexual, transgender, or otherwise part of the LGBTQ+ community. As I got to know each of my classes and helped them get to know me, often a moment would arrive when a student would choose to come out and reveal themselves in the truth of their identity. Rarely was it a direct face-to-face conversation. Sometimes it was in an essay. Sometimes an email. Sometimes simply an object, like a sticker or piece of jewelry subtly displayed. Often it was covert, introduced as an innocuous question to test the waters or spoken in coded language. IYKYK (if you know, you know), as the kids say.

Nearly all these queer students were closeted to some degree at this Nazarene university; they did not experience it as a safe place to be fully themselves. I could empathize—I was also a closeted queer person as their professor. I also felt profoundly unsafe and unable to bring my full self to work every day.

What does it mean to be closeted? Being closeted means your relationships are—must be—cautious, stymied, stunted. It means holding yourself back out of fear of betrayal and rejection. It means cloistering your heart and building thick walls around it. It means rejecting yourself first so that others won’t have the chance to.

Coming out is the opposite. It is an act of profound courage and vulnerability, a self-revealing that is as beautiful as it is fragile. Because I knew the bravery it took for these students to offer me some glimpse into their truth, I treated their coming out moments as sacred, as occasions for care and thanks and celebration. Holy, in its deepest etymological meaning: whole, sound, and well.

Once they knew they were accepted and loved as queer, I witnessed students transform from cautious and withdrawn to enthusiastic and engaged. In a word, they blossomed, as individuals and as students. They asked for extra reading. They sent me creative pieces of writing that I had not assigned. They stayed after class to talk. They spoke up in class with amazing insights. Not only did I have the profound privilege to witness this blossoming, but their classroom community did as well. Instead of a withdrawn, fearful classmate, other students benefited from a classmate who felt able to bring their confident, joyful self into that learning space. In occasional cases where there were multiple LGBTQ+ students (who were usually already friends, since we tend to find each other and flock together), the class became a festive, creative flourishing that bloomed into something far beyond my own ability to create as a professor alone. What a blessing.

And this—this is why the Church of the Nazarene should fully affirm LGBTQ+ people with no reservations: because the church is missing out on the queer community, queer creativity, and queer joy that appear when LGBTQ+ people feel safe and welcome to bring their full selves into your church.

You should do it for selfish reasons, apart from all the moral, ethical, and biblical arguments that also support this move. You should do it because you are missing the party.

Now make no mistake, for many of these students, our conversations after their coming out were not all unicorns and rainbows. Often they shared deep pain, hurt, and experiences of rejection, bullying, sometimes cruelty at the hands of Christians. Some of them had stopped attending church or found services painful when they did attend. Nearly all of them were counting the days until they could leave the university and the Nazarene church—or all church—behind altogether. Not because they didn’t want to be there, but because they knew they were not wanted. Not truly. Not if they embraced who they were.

Unlike their peers, they knew they would never benefit from or contribute to the networks of graduates, alumni, and church members in their future careers and community service. They would not be hired or ordained. Whatever they may accomplish down the road, they would not be brought back to be awarded, honored, or feted as successful model alumni by a proud alma mater. Not if they transitioned. Not if they married a partner of the same gender. Not even if they ever simply dared to live publicly in their authentic identity.

And so far, they are correct. The Nazarene Church and its universities have cast out some of their most luminous souls—not always overtly, but effectively all the same—by making it poisonous for them to stay.

I wish I could tell the stories here of specific young people I remember: those who went on to create beautiful poetry and films, earn graduate degrees and found organizations, fall in love and have children, explore their gender and illuminate the world, all after leaving the Nazarene Church behind. I would also have to tell you about those I know who floundered, those left bruised and broken by the rejection and trauma visited on them by the Nazarene Church, those who felt abandoned by God, who never fully recovered. I want you to hear their stories so you can imagine what might have been, if only they had been embraced and loved from the beginning. But their narratives are their own.

I can only tell my own story. I came to understand my queer identity in my early twenties—and then repressed that knowledge for a decade until the secret began to destroy my body from the inside. As I slowly began to come out to my Christian friends and family, I found freedom, but also more pain as I lost friends—some of whom simply disappeared, some who made assumptions and snap judgments about my “lifestyle,” and some who claimed to love me but refused to stand beside me when it might cost them something.

And through it all was the certain knowledge that coming out fully would mean the end of a vocation I loved and felt called to, the end of my important work creating safe spaces for queer students on campus, and the end of my own place in a community I had contributed to for twelve years. The prospect broke my heart.

I stayed for too long, as so many of us do, by convincing myself that the acceptance and affirmation of a few individuals on campus would make up for institutional repression and silence from the rest of my community. I was wrong. Similarly, many people believe that if the Church is just “nicer” to LGBTQ+ people—less overtly hateful, less outwardly judgmental—then LGBTQ+ people ought to feel safe and welcome, even if we aren’t allowed to fall in love, marry, transition, or hold leadership positions. It’s a trap, and we queer Christians are no longer falling for it.

When I finally left, I heard one comment over and over, from sympathetic colleagues, administrators, and students: “What a loss for the university!” And they were right, more so than they knew.

Every year that goes by without LGBTQ-affirming doctrine and praxis, Nazarene universities and churches lose. They lose bright, brilliant minds that would have enriched their faculties, pulpits, and Sunday schools. They lose creative, talented spirits that would have brought music, art, and drama into their worship spaces. They lose the full potential of the LGBTQ+ members who exist in their churches and schools but cannot flourish. They lose the alchemy of queer magic and joy that appears when LGBTQ+ people are fully loved, fully valued, fully empowered. They lose brothers, sisters, and nonbinary siblings; leaders, friends, and confidants, who would have taught them how to love, how to find their courage, and how to be a truly holy community.

Devon Van Essen (she/her) is an alumna and former professor of a Nazarene university. She now teaches English and Composition at Treasure Valley Community College and lives in Idaho.

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