When the anonymous writers of a gay zine distributed their publication on Harding University's campus, they expected a reaction. The volume contained probing and consistently heart-wrenching firsthand accounts of what it's like to identify as queer at the Church of Christ-affiliated college, and they knew that students and faculty would take notice.
What they didn't expect, however, was for copies of the zine, called State of the Gay, to be distributed on six other campuses, for the publication to go viral and for a bevy of media outlets -- including Jezebel and the New Yorker -- to pick up the story. But that's exactly what happened, and the zine's creators not sure they appreciate the hype.
One Harding alumnus, who -- along with two other members of the HU Queer Press -- agreed to speak to the Huffington Post under the condition of anonymity, explained that the media buzz was a double-edged sword. "Unfortunately the media attention has caused a lot of polarizing views on campus," he said. "We welcomed the publicity because it allowed us to spread our stories and touch more people, but it also pissed a lot more people off."
Part of the reason that the State of the Gay circulated so quickly beyond Harding's walls was because the university blocked access to HU Queer Press' site on campus. In a speech posted to YouTube, Harding President David Burks said that he knew he would be unable to prevent people from seeing the content of the site, but that he "personally found the website to be offensive and degrading." He added that "while the postings appear to be sincere and heartfelt, several were vulgar and profane by anybody's standards."
And though some of the language in the State of the Gay might strike conservative readers as inflammatory, its authors had hoped that their work would spark an earnest discussion on the campus that they called home.
The magazine's creators were not always comfortable with or proud of their sexualities -- in fact, quite the opposite. When one member of HU Queer Press decided to enroll at Harding, he was looking for a supportive religious environment -- and one that would help him become straight. "I converted to Christianity my senior year of high school," he said. "At the time, part of the reason I wanted to go to Harding was that I thought someone there would fix my 'gay problem.' That was definitely a big part of the reason that I decided to go there."
Another former student also said that he also believed Harding's re-orientation therapy would prove effective.
The first, however, soon found the campus to be frighteningly homophobic and sank into depressed isolation. The second said that by his junior year of college he'd come to terms with his homosexuality. "I had been in [re-orientation] therapy for a while," he said. "When I finally dropped out I started reading a lot of theology books on homosexuality and finally came to terms with it."
A third student interviewed said she'd chosen Harding because she was familiar with the campus and had friends who were attending. She'd spent much of her childhood traveling, but family ties had always led back to Harding -- she said she didn't remember even applying to other schools. But when she arrived on campus she was disappointed by how easily professors dropped offensive statements in class and soon began to feel uncomfortable. "Teachers always talked about the dangers of homosexuality, and it was always compared to pedophilia," she said.
Still, all three said that Harding is a special place. Only one said he'd regretted having gone, and stressed that he cherished the relationships he'd made at Harding -- the other two said that given the option, they would do it all again, thanks to the strong bonds they formed at the university.
It is this commitment to the people of Harding that may explain why the members of HU Queer Press did not intend to target administrators or prompt overwhelming change at the university.
When asked to outline the purpose of the zine, members of the Queer Press said they wanted to reach out to closeted students. "Our initial goal was to make visible the stories of gay and lesbian students at Harding," one student said. "We wanted those students to be more hopeful and less alone. And our second goal was to help students find allies who would be more vocal within the Harding community and in this way create a safer environment for lesbian and gay students."
Another of the three added that she'd also hoped to alert other gay students to potential allies. "For me, what I hoped was that other gay students would read this and understand that they were not alone," she said. "Because I remember in the beginning the most hurtful thing was feeling like I was alone and feeling like there was nobody that I can talk to about this. So I really wanted to send a message out there to people: you're not alone."
But when asked to react to Dr. Burks' speech, one member of the HU Queer Press seized on the positive. "I was really proud that Dr. Burks admitted that anti-LGBT bullying is wrong. This was the first time in Harding's history that any type of statement like that was made -- at least publicly," he said. He added that he been disappointed by the president's stubborn stance, and that he'd wished the school leader would be more open to a discussion.
And such a discussion that would begin to probe at questions that extend beyond Harding -- whether there is a place for homosexuality in the Church of Christ, and whether it is possible to identify as both queer and Christian.
One member of the Press said that he'd found a way to balance the two. "I didn't have to compromise my faith or my sexual identity...I didn't feel like the faith I was trying to build had to be around fundamentalists," he said. "Justice and compassion are fueled by faith -- God and Christ care about marginalized people."
But another said that she has moved away from the Christian faith. "I now identify as agnostic, leaning more towards atheism. I did still consider myself a Christian up until about a year ago," she said. She still believes that there needs to be a safe space for Christian homosexuals -- and when asked if Harding can harbor that space, she said she sees potential.