Olivet denies claims of discrimination

Just before 9:35 Thursday morning the chapel at Olivet Nazarene University swelled with students.

Twice each week the entire student body converges there to listen to guest speakers discuss spiritual and community issues. Attendance is mandatory.

Some students arrived hand in hand. One couple sat in an embrace.

Not unusual on a college campus, even at a conservative Christian university. That may not have been the case, however, if those were same sex couples.

The university does not support homosexuality -- though its officials say it does not discriminate against students who are gay.

Thursday's speaker was Mike Haley, a self-proclaimed reformed gay man who has in other interviews likened homosexuality to alcoholism.

His scheduled appearance and an unrelated visit to campus by supporters of the Illinois Defense of Marriage Initiative -- a movement to limit marriage in Illinois to heterosexuals, only -- prompted members of an unofficial gay/straight alliance at Olivet to petition for tolerance and an open discussion about homosexuality.

Perhaps more unexpectedly, it brought a onetime student leader, Evan Karg, to the center of the debate when he came out as a gay man. Using the Facebook page created for these students, it was the first time Karg announced his sexual orientation to so large an audience.

Not long after Karg's announcement Wednesday night, someone started a Twitter account using Karg's image and began posting anti-gay comments and linking them to the university using the hashtag #onuchapel.

The school denounced the act but is not pursuing those responsible.

"These comments stand in direct opposition to our values as a Christian university and do not reflect the viewpoint of the majority of our students, faculty and staff," said spokeswoman Heather Day in a prepared statement. "At this time, we have no way of knowing who posted those comments, or even if those involved have any affiliation with Olivet."

For Karg, there is a much larger issue.

Olivet's counseling, disciplinary and housing policies are discriminatory, Karg said in a telephone interview. And now he is calling on the university to embrace equality for all students, gay and straight.

"It's time for laws to protect students even in private universities," Karg said. "I want to say, 'Hey, this needs to stop.' "

Olivet officials deny Karg's claims saying in the prepared statement that the university does not at any time ask a student about sexual orientation.

"When it comes to the issue of sexuality, we believe that the Bible is very clear," Day said. "God's design for marriage is between one man and one woman. Any sexual activity outside of marriage shortchanges his plan for our personal and spiritual fulfillment.

"We also believe that sexual depravity is no more, no less sinful than greed, lust, slander or hatred."

But former and current gay students and their allies say inviting Haley and allowing anti-gay political groups on campus create an environment in which gays are marginalized.

Pushed to the fringes, these students are fighting back in unprecedented ways.

"I felt like I had to save the church's and university's reputation," said Karg of keeping secret his homosexuality during his time at Olivet. "But I felt that's not honoring my dignity and humanity."

Less than seven miles away, a different story is playing out at the area's only other postsecondary institution.

Students at Kankakee Community College are prepping for a performance of "The Laramie Project," a play about the Wyoming town in the aftermath of the brutal murder of Matthew Shepard, a young gay man.

"I didn't just want to see it on the stage," said Tyler McMahon, one of the show's organizers. "I wanted to get its message out."

Last year, in another show of support for the gay community, KCC invited Greg Baird, a gay man who advocates tolerance on college campuses.

Back at Olivet, Haley, in a 30-minute speech mixing humor and Bible verses, told a tale of sexual abuse, spiritual depravity and his ultimate return to the church he once vehemently denied.

"I very quickly got involved in [the gay] community," Haley said. "I jumped on what I call the gay treadmill, and it's not a whole lot different than the treadmill I see a lot of young women buying into today where they believe they have to be a certain size and look a certain way to be attractive to men."

For 12 years, Haley said, he lived a life of carnal pursuit. Finally, at his lowest point, he said he returned to his faith and made a difficult admission to his family.

"I'm miserable. My life is out of control. It's based on a lie," he recalled saying.

Brett Carmouche, an Olivet graduate and gay man, watched Haley's speech online. He took issue with Haley's position that homosexuality is unnatural and that gays can reorient themselves.

"I find that to be very problematic," he said.

At least 150 students signed on to what is being called the "love petition." Where these students go from here remains unknown.

Carmouche said he hopes students could use last week's momentum to pressure the university to adopt policies that foster security and compassion for a group often left vulnerable and damaged.

"When an unjust law or policy exists, it must be broken so that justice might prevail," he wrote in an unpublished response to last week's events. "You must remember that you have the power -- and it is a real power -- to change not just unjust policies or laws, but the world.

"Olivet is but the first step in that journey."