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LGBTQ students finding their place at Houghton College

Joshua Duttweiler and Amy Coon
Photographs of light projections on campus buildings courtesy of the artists.

The mention of sex or sexuality doesn’t usually get much of a reaction on many college campuses, but for many Houghton College students, the topic is still considered taboo.

Students from across the religious spectrum attend the small liberal arts school for its curriculum and conservative Christian values. But recently, LGBTQ students have become more vocal on campus and are finding their place at a college where the definition of marriage as “being between a man and a woman” is written in its community covenant.

And over the summer, Houghton alumni Joshua Duttweiler and Amy Coon came back to their alma mater to collaborate on an exhibition called "We are all Houghton."

The artists' goal: amplify the voices of Houghton's LGBTQ students.

“The project was initially prompted by some of the Supreme Court cases around religious organizations' ability to discriminate in their hiring, specifically against LGBTQ individuals. Houghton was actually involved in the lawsuit,” said Duttweiler.

The lawsuit involved cases brought to the U.S. Supreme Court in 2019 that determined whether sex discrimination prohibited by the Civil Rights Act of 1964 extends to sexual orientation or gender identity. Houghton College and about 40 other Christian institutions were named in an amicus brief(friend of the court) defending the college’s hiring practices.

They claimed that their credibility as religious institutions relies heavily on the character and conduct of their teachers and because of that, they should have the right to be selective about their employees. Colleges that violate the law lose federal funding.

Duttweiler identifies as gay and didn’t come out until after graduating in 2015. He says, having an LGBTQ faculty member would have helped him feel more comfortable on campus.

“In college, I think in a lot of ways it’s a time to kind of figure out who you are," Duttweiler said. "And so … Houghton ends up in some ways making it kind of really hard to figure that stuff out.”

Both Duttweiler and Coon said Houghton’s culture doesn’t cultivate a safe place for LGBTQ students to come out. They say students feel pressured to uphold the religious values outlined in Houghton’s student handbook and community covenant, a written commitment that everyone in the college’s community is expected to follow.

“Because of repressing it and because of some of the policies that Houghton has out, it scares people to not even consider it and think about it," Coon said. "Even just talks about sex in general in colleges, those are all repressed.”

For the project, Duttweiler and Coon gathered stories from current students and alumni and projected their words in large print on campus buildings. They used words of current LGBTQ students through answers submitted through a survey they provided. Nine alumni shared stories that were highlighted in the project.

One anonymous participant wrote: “The inability to speak about sexuality openly and in an informed way led to much fear, confusion, and anxiety in my own life, often for reasons I didn’t even understand.”

Photographs of light projections on campus buildings courtesy of the artists.
Credit Joshua Duttweiler and Amy Coon

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Houghton President Shirley Mullen denies that the college's participation in the amicus brief that inspired the project was about protecting the right to discriminate.

“The reason that we believe the issues of protecting the rights of all different people of all different values in our culture are best settled in the legislative world rather than the courts,” said Mullen.

Mullen said she fully supported the exhibition and even refused requests from some staff and community members to shut it down.

“We need to work more diligently to make sure that we are a welcoming and nourishing place for all of our students,” said Mullen.

Houghton junior Sarah Halvorson is part of an unofficial LBGTQ student group on campus. Halvorson, who identifies as queer, said she feels supported by the administration.

When the rainbow flag that the group painted on a large boulder on campus was painted over with an American flag, the LGBTQ students organized a vigil and invited Mullen and other members of the college community to participate. Mullen accepted the invite.

Houghton College's "Spirit Rock" painted by LGBTQ students.
Credit Liam Gingrich

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“She sent out an email that was really beautiful and really supportive explaining that she wants to stand in solidarity with us and show that she truly believes and wants for us to have a place at Houghton,” said Halv0rson.

Halvorson is one of only a few openly LGBTQ students at Houghton and has now become an advocate. She said her goal is to make the group an official club before new leadership comes in; Mullen is set to retire in the spring.

Coon said she has seen a lot of growth in the community since her time at Houghton, but the real change is reflected within the school’s policies.

“Actions speak louder than words, and performative allyship is something that we see a lot these days,” said Coon. “It's one thing to show up to a vigil or send out an email. It’s another thing that your policies explicitly say something else.”

Since ending the installation, Duttweiler and Coon have kept in touch with the students and are currently exploring ways to continue the conversation at Houghton.

Duttweiler said that as an artist, he is not a policy maker, but part of what he does comes from the values he learned at Houghton.

“The value is to fix the wrongs of the world," said Duttweiler. “I think interestingly enough, the reason why we’re doing it is because that is what we were taught to do. You can be a changemaker, and so this in some way comes from that.”

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