Building a queer community on a Christian campus
How a community of queer students and allies deal with their famously conservative Christian university.
Queenie Rabanes can often see a visible difference when a fellow Trinity Western University student comes out as queer.
Their shoulders straighten; their gazes lift.
“You can see their posture change,” she said. “They start feeling more seen, and they get brighter.”
Rabanes is a co-leader of One TWU, a group of LGBTQ2S+ students and supporters at TWU, a Christian university in Langley that has been widely criticized for its community covenant forbidding sex outside of heterosexual marriage.
The covenant hasn’t been mandatory for all students since 2018—a change that was lauded as a small victory for queer students at TWU. But five years later, the fallout from the decision has shifted the way queer students exist at the university—and not in an entirely positive way.
Matthew Wigmore helped start One TWU in 2014.
Wigmore, now a civil servant with a masters degree from the London School of Economics, was in his second year at TWU at the time. He knew that different queer groups had started up and fizzled out on campus before. This one, he hoped, would benefit from its era.
TWU had just entered a series of legal battles for a law school it hoped to open. The case, and the decision from the Supreme Court in 2018, weighed the school’s freedom of religion against the rights of potential LGBTQ2S+ students.
“We were in a really unique time with the law school debacle,” Wigmore said. “Everyone was talking about how unfriendly Trinity was towards queer people. It was the first time that [the university] knew the conversation was going to happen, regardless of whether they wanted it to or not.”
Another co-founder started the Facebook page for One TWU in November that year.
The page’s membership ballooned in the weeks that followed as friends told each other about the organization and invitations in pale Facebook blue began popping into email inboxes. The group’s membership was soon 200 people strong. At a small school known for its social conservatism it felt like a significant number.
One’s efforts were not exactly under the radar. Its leaders drew a line between what work (from promoting the group to collecting membership information) needed to remain confidential and what needed to be public.
Meetings began to happen weekly. They were kept confidential, and students were (and continue to be) screened to keep members from being outed without their consent. The group also quickly started holding more-public events where the doors were thrown open and other students and staff were invited to learn about queerness, faith, and the group itself.
“Part of how [One] grew was by doing events,” Wigmore said. “We thought that it’s a really important opportunity for people to tell their stories without being censored, for people to encounter perspectives that they wouldn’t otherwise have an opportunity to.”
One had held events before on campus, though only after careful compromise with administration. At the insistence of administration, its first events had speakers from both “perspectives” on queerness and Christianity. In return, One was allowed to hold the events on the school grounds.
(One’s earliest events included speakers from both ‘Side A’ Christians, who affirm LGBTQ+ identities and believe in their intentional creation, and ‘Side B’ Christians, who espouse that queer people must remain celibate.)
An event the coalition put on became an annual tradition on campus. Curious audiences packed rooms for the deeply personal “Stories Night,” during which some group members stood among their peers to share stories about their lives, faith, orientation, and gender identity. When seats ran out in 2019, students sat on the floor. Faculty leaned against the walls. But the event didn’t happen in 2022.
A changeable relationship
Early last autumn, Carter Sawatzky walked across TWU’s forested campus. Sawatzky is tall, with a curly, dark mullet and sparkly, tasteful makeup. They had joined One’s leadership a few years previously, and were starting the final year of an English degree. That day, Sawatzky was on their way to a meeting with the upper echelons of the school’s administration on One’s behalf.
Sawatzky was a familiar figure on the campus’s lawns and paved pathways. But inside the white-walled administration offices, up a long set of stairs tucked behind a nondescript door in one of the main buildings on campus, they felt out of place.
“It’s a completely different world up there,” Sawatzky said. “You walk up, and I just felt very foreign.”
Sawatzky climbed those stairs and walked into those offices to find a venue for 2022’s “Stories Night”— and hit a brick wall.
Despite holding the event on campus in previous years and watching rooms fill with curious and supportive students, the meeting with administration proved fruitless.
(One TWU held Stories Night events on campus in 2021 and 2019. In 2019, though, the university’s new president, Mark Husbands, made an unexpected and distinctly “Side-B” introductory speech).
Rabanes said the university’s reaction to One’s proposals is unpredictable and erratic. For the last few years, the week-to-week work of running the group has required regularly pulling on kid gloves to liaise with administrators.
“[We’re always] keeping up, building, and fixing the relationship between One TWU and Trinity,” she said.
That relationship, Rabanes said, “comes up every semester. And every semester, it looks different. Because it depends on…the reasons why Carter and I have to communicate with them.”
Sometimes, Rabanes said, the group is trying to plan an event on campus and needs the administration’s permission. Sometimes, they’re advocating for a specific student or hoping to share about the group by hanging posters in hallways. But physical posters from One—no matter the message—have been banned since 2019.
Posts and posters
There is always, however, a workaround.
To advertise the group and its events (whether on campus or not) but avoid putting up posters, which require permission from the university, Sawatzky returned to the online platforms where the group started to grow eight years previously.
Sawatzky joined One’s leadership in 2019. Wigmore called them the group’s “digital mastermind.”
“We rigorously advertise,” Sawatzky said. “Not being able to put up posters on campus is kind of a big block to that. But we’ve been able to make it work in other ways by posting on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter.”
Sawatzky carefully crafts infographics and images that share relevant news articles, and explain what One is, as well as describe common misconceptions about queerness and Christianity. Sawatzky then watches the posts spread virtually, shared by other students and alumni—some queer themselves, others dedicated allies, others simply supportive of the group’s existence.
They also use social media to communicate publicly with administration. One post, informing followers about the events leading up to this year’s Stories Night, tags the official TWU account.
“There will continue to be queer students here as long as TWU exists. You will not erase us no matter how hard you try,” it reads.
The restrictions on One are supposedly linked to the group’s technical status as an “external group.” The distinction can be a frustrating one to leaders, including Sawatzky, who note that the group is intertwined with the university’s existence and made up of students, staff, and alumni but not an official club.
But that status is also a benefit, they note. One currently operates as a non-profit organization. If brought into the university’s official fold, it could lose its independence and control of its leadership, membership, and mission.
An equal and opposite reaction
Wigmore, who remains One’s managing director, traces the change in the administration’s stance to the decision to drop the community covenant. Changes in leadership at the school afterwards, including the appointment of a new president, have amplified the shift.
“It is like we are dealing with a brand new university who’s never known anything about us [and] thinks we’ve forgotten how they used to be,” he said. A place that once allowed One to organize and share stories (though under careful conditions and scrutiny) has now slammed the door.
The restrictions on One are a delayed reaction to external pressures, Wigmore said. One took root and grew when the university was forced to have a frank conversation about queerness and faith. Public opinion, law, and a shifting world pressured the school to drop the community covenant from its mandatory status. Students in leadership positions at the school must still sign. But now, away from the spotlight of the law school debate, the university is pushing back.
Wigmore described the reaction as “making up new ways to be more conservative.” They said one of those ways was limiting One’s presence on the Langley campus.
“[The change to the community covenant’s status] was something they were forced to do.” Wigmore said. “They got caught with their pants down in the Supreme Court. They knew their accreditation was coming up with nursing and education [schools]. They didn’t want to do it. They had to do it.”
TWU administration did not respond to requests for comment.
As the university’s relationship with the group continues to shift and degrade, the community that began to grow in 2014 has shifted too.
When Rabanes joined One, about four years ago, the idea of a safe community was paired with an intensity from its leaders, largely alumni at the time. The crackling, often angry, energy made joining meetings difficult and a little stressful.
“It was very intense, very fiery,” she said. “There wasn’t a lot of room for current students to express how they’re feeling.” That energy isn’t gone. But now, instead of solely trying to tear down walls that harm queer students, that energy is also committed to building platforms on which they can stand.
Rabanes helped orchestrate that change when she began leading meetings a year or two after she joined the group. When she talks about One’s progress, her timelines revolve around people rather than exact dates: it was before one person graduated, but after this person left—around 2018 or 2019.
She brings that focus to leading the community. But Rabanes knows that she is building on the work of firebrands—like Wigmore—who came before her.
The intensity that characterized the early days of One hasn’t faded, but it may have changed shape. Tired of complaining, Rabanes wanted to build something. That construction—of a space for self-discovery, friendship, and community—is ongoing.
“I use my energy in different ways. But there’s an outlet now,” Rabanes said. “It still feels very urgent. But there’s a sense of belonging.”
Sawatzky knows that a sense of belonging is vital. It’s one of the reasons they joined the group in the first place. Today it’s something they’ve had a hand in creating, along with Rabanes.
“We’re a community of queer students at the university. We’ve been here, we are here, and we want to make it a safer space.”
Correction: This story has been updated to note that students in student leadership positions, as well as faculty members, must still sign the school’s community covenant.