[June is Pride Month, and this year we're celebrating by honoring 30 LGBTQ firsts. To see the full list, visit nbcnews.com/pride30.]
Claire Murashima did not go to college expecting to change her institution, a Christian university founded 145 years ago. She also did not intend to come out, and she certainly didn’t plan to make history with her election as student body president.
But she did.
Calvin University is a private Christian college in Grand Rapids, Michigan, with about 3,800 students. It’s associated with the Christian Reformed Church, a Protestant denomination. The church’s position on homosexuality is that while gay members are to be given love and support from their communities, the practice of homosexuality “is incompatible with obedience to the will of God as revealed in scripture.” One of the university’s most well-known alumni is Betsy DeVos, who served as education secretary in the Trump administration.
Murashima, 22, said she went to Calvin because she wanted something different from her large, liberal, public high school in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. She described herself as someone who “moves towards people I disagree with” and said that while her high school education was the foundation of her political and social beliefs, “I wanted to expose myself to something new, and I knew my beliefs would be critically examined.”
There was something more, too: She said she thought going to a religious institution might make her more holy.
"I equated being gay with sin, and I wasn’t comfortable with that in my life yet," she said. "I definitely wanted to not cause controversy and be straight."
At first, Murashima felt like she didn’t fit in at Calvin. Still working through her own sexuality, she recalled going to church and hearing a sermon about how gay people shouldn’t get married.
“I pretended I agreed, even though I was like, ‘Oh, my gosh, this is really hard to hear,’” she said.
Her sophomore year was tough, not only because she was struggling with reconciling who she was with her religious beliefs but there were other setbacks, too: Her grandmother and dog both died, and she went through a breakup — all in the same week. Her self-confidence took a hit.
A summer internship in Chicago gave her the distance she needed to help her find her footing, as did a semester her junior year in Washington, D.C., interning at the American Enterprise Institute, a public policy think tank. She served on the student senate at Calvin and began to find her community. She performed in the dance guild. She became more comfortable with her sexuality and felt less and less like she had to choose between that and her religion.
She said there wasn't one specific moment where she miraculously became comfortable in her own skin, explaining it more as a gradual process — and she is quick to point out that she still doesn't have it all figured out.
“I’ve been intentional about being transparent about that,” she said. “I don’t want people to feel like they have to have it all figured out before they come out. Because then they never will.”
At the beginning of the pandemic, she was finishing up her junior year, unsuccessfully looking for work and living in a house with 16 roommates, five bathrooms and one squirrel in the wall.
“We were all kind of depressed on TikTok during the day and doing watercolors at night,” she said.
She said she had always thought about running for student body president. While in the Student Senate, she’d worked as a student senator, vice president and graphic designer. She launched her campaign in April of last year, with a platform that echoed the values of the Student Senate: being results-focused, student-centered and collaborative. She did not come out.
“I wanted to lead with what I’d do as president and, later, when I was doing those things and people had already built up respect for me and knew me, I would come out,” she explained. “I don’t regret that.”
She was elected in May and came out in October, in an op-ed published in Chimes, the school’s official newspaper. It’s the same paper that, a month prior, had run a letter to the editor by a Calvin professor who wrote of his traditional views of marriage backed up, he said, by Scripture and God (in response to a local church appointing a deacon who is in a same-sex marriage).
Murashima’s op-ed was titled “I am Calvin University’s first openly LGBTQ student body president,” and in it, she came out as bisexual, saying she was sharing her story because of the importance of representation.
“When I was younger, I saw very few examples of people who love like me in the church and other leadership positions I aspired to,” she wrote. “I would have loved a role model who embraced both their queerness and faith — and I hope to live that out in my leadership at Calvin.”
She wrote of the isolation of being closeted at Calvin, of its “heteronormative and relationship-focused culture” and that not seeing queer people in leadership positions at the university “makes us feel like we don’t fully belong at Calvin. When the demographics of our university’s administrators and professors doesn’t match the diversity of our world, we are not reflecting the Kingdom of God.”
The reception to the op-ed varied.
“There were people who wished I’d been more like, ‘Speak truth to power!’ and people who wished I’d respected the wishes of the institution more,” Murashima said.
People outside of Calvin, she added, reached out to her and told her about their conflicts around their sexuality and their beliefs and about coming out to their parents.
She said there was some tension, both with other students and with the school administrators, but it got better. Professors reached out to offer support, including the one who wrote the Chimes op-ed supporting traditional marriage.
“After that he wanted to get to know me, and I was open to that,” she said, adding that he invited her over for dinner with his family. “Even with people I disagree with, I feel like I’ve wanted to have a relationship with them and not just cancel them.”
Murashima focused on her leadership role through most of her senior year. Then, in March, the tensions that had been brewing reached a boiling point, she said.
A table was set up on the lawn at the university by three students. A banner was prominently attached. The banner said, in both an affront to queer folks and the rules of grammar, “LGBTQ is sin. The Bible says. Change my mind.” They included a poster with Bible quotes to support their argument.
Looking back, Murashima said this was a point of rupture at the university. The news of the tabling event spread. Local news outlets covered it. University officials said publicly that the students did not have permission for the table and sign. Students created a petition urging support for their LGBTQ classmates. Chimes ran a story and said the group’s leader told the newspaper they “hosted the table out of concern for the salvation of Calvin students being misled by LGBTQ-affirming professors.” Students responded by planning a sit-in to support the school’s queer community. People wore T-shirts with “You are loved” written on them. Some gathered chalk and wrote “You belong here” on campus sidewalks.
The university president, Michael Le Roy, sent an email to the Calvin community. In it, he said, “As fellow image-bearers of God, we write today to affirm the image of God in our LGBTQ+ friends. We want all of our students to know that they are loved.” He also wrote that Calvin affirms “sexual intimacy is a gift from God to be celebrated in marriage between a man and a woman.”
Murashima graduated in May. She said the conversations that were sparked on campus were inspiring to her.
“Not every queer person should be — or wants to be — changing the institution that oppresses them, but that’s just who I am,” she said. “It’s a gift. I feel like it’s something God gave me.”