Graduating students staged a protest at their commencement ceremony by handing interim President Pete Menjares small LGBTQ Pride flags when he handed them their diplomas. The flags were an action against a recent decision from the school’s Board of Trustees that upheld a rule banning employees from engaging in same-sex sexual activity and sex outside of marriage. The protest comes after weeks of student sit-ins and demands for the board to reverse their decision.
Teen Vogue caught up with Pamela Styborski, 21 – who just graduated from Seattle Pacific University and was one of the organizers behind the graduation protest – to hear about the protest and what change the students are hoping for.
Teen Vogue: What impact does the recent board decision have on students?
Pamela Styborski: It means we have a lack of representation in the classroom of diverse identities. One of the things SPU preaches is to engage the culture and change the world. We’re taught as students to go out and love others and work within the community. As students, if we’re LGBTQ, we are fully embraced by professors. So when you step into the classroom and you don’t have staff who represent those identities, it’s harmful for students who hold those identities to not see that representation in a higher education classroom.
TV: I saw the graduation protest that went viral on TikTok where graduating seniors handed rainbow flags to the president of the university. How did that idea come about?
PS: The protest started as a joke, like what if we do something at graduation? What if we hand him something because we have to shake his hand? The conversation started a while ago, after the vote and the sit-in when he talked to us one time while entering and leaving his office every day … we knew we had to do something. Handing him the pride flags was our decision. We showed that we were serious and we might be graduating but we’re alum and we’re still here to fight.
TV: Were you pleased by how the graduation protest turned out?
PS: Yes. The student speaker touched on wanting inclusion for LGBTQ students then that was followed up by all of us walking across stage with flags. As soon as a flag was handed over, people cheered, and everyone in the crowd who had flags waved them when someone handed it over. Like, hey, look at this. We’re here and we’re not going anywhere.
TV: What would you say to people who wonder why queer students would go to a Christian university?
PS: Queer students might not know they’re queer when they choose to go to a Christian university. And if you get a great scholarship from a private college, which I did and a lot of my peers did, it makes sense to go to that school because college costs so much money. And a lot of people interpret the New Testament of “love your neighbor as you love yourself” as [including] the LGBTQ community. The Bible didn’t leave those out. A lot of people genuinely believe LGBTQ individuals were created by god and deserve to be loved and live their lives as they were made and have space in religious spaces.
TV: What is it about collective action that brings you hope?
PS: It’s funny to think how much love there is in protest. When we’re screaming hey, hey, ho ho, homophobia has got to go… or at the sit-in when we’re having a powerpoint night… there’s a huge amount of unity. At the sit-in we’ve been fed by our greater Seattle community and by upper administration and faculty. We step into these spaces and ask people to join us in protest and activism and they show up because they care. We know we’re doing it for them and for the greater good. It makes all those hard moments worth it. I don’t want anyone on SPU’s campus to not feel welcome. The way in which people band together, no matter what title they hold in association to SPU, that’s what’s hopeful. It’s not one generation or one student. It’s everyone who wants this.
This interview has been condensed and lightly edited for clarity.
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