Graduating seniors at Seattle Pacific University handed rainbow Pride flags to the school's interim president when they received their diplomas on Sunday to protest the school's anti-LGBTQ policies.
The organized action, which went viral on TikTok, was part of ongoing student protests organized by Associated Students of Seattle Pacific (ASSP).
“All year, we’ve been working on LGBTQ stuff in protests and inclusion, and it’s a really big deal on SPU’s campus right now,” graduating senior and ASSP representative Chloe Guillot said. “At graduation, this is our final moment as students. Our little last swan song, even though we’re going to continue to fight.”
SPU is a religious educational institution affiliated with the Free Methodist Church, according to its website, which states that the school "reserves the right to prefer employees or prospective employees on the basis of religion."
ASSP has been protesting the school's "Employee Lifestyle Expectations" policy, which bans "sexual behavior that is inconsistent with the University's understanding of Biblical standards." Full-time employees are expected to refrain from “cohabitation, extramarital sexual activity and same-sex sexual activity," the policy reads. Employees can face disciplinary action and termination if they violate the policy.
During the ceremony, Guillot said about 40 to 50 graduates held rainbow Pride flags as they walked on stage to receive their diplomas. Some refrained from shaking interim president Pete Menjares' hand, opting instead to give him the flag.
A video of the ceremony, posted by the account @engaygetheculture, gained more than 3 million views in two days.
In an email statement, Menjares, interim president, said that Sunday “was a wonderful day to celebrate with our graduates. Those who took the time to give me a flag showed me how they felt and I respect their view.”
Student protests continue post-grad
The SPU Faculty Senate has recommended that the school remove the “Employee Lifestyle Expectation” policy, but the recommendation was rejected by the school board.
ASSP is asking the board, which the school’s president sits on, to reveal how each member voted on the lifestyle policy, and for those who voted against upholding the policy to openly condemn those who voted for it. The group is also demanding that the board members who voted to uphold it resign from the school board.
Students originally planned to protest at graduation by handing Menjares rainbow erasers, but Guillot said that they “never shipped.”
“I thought, OK, nothing’s going to happen. And then I showed up and was waiting in this little back room to line up for commencement, and someone came in and handed me like 20 Pride flags,” Guillot said. “We started passing it out to students ... It was kind of first come, first serve. They were gone very quickly, and if we would have been able to get more there would have been more participation.”
When the first person handed Menjares a flag, Guillot said the audience responded with “lingering applause.” When the second person handed him a flag, “people started clapping a lot.” Guillot was sitting near a professor, who she remembers “just kept laughing” every time a graduate approached Menjares with a flag.
Although the protest wasn’t quite what the group of students had planned, Guillot said it “still worked out very well.”
ASSP also staged a sit-in outside of Menjares’ office, which began three weeks ago and will continue until July 1.
A spokesperson for SPU said the school has no comment on the sit-in. They referred NBC News to the Board’s official statement and a series of FAQs.
“We want the community of SPU to know that this was a thorough and prayerful deliberation,” Board Chair Cedric Davis said in the statement, which was posted on May 23. “While this decision brings complex and heart-felt reactions, the Board made a decision that it believed was most in line with the university’s mission and Statement of Faith and chose to have SPU remain in communion with its founding denomination, the Free Methodist Church USA, as a core part of its historical identity as a Christian university.”
When seniors left the sit-in to attend commencement, freshmen, sophomores, juniors and alumni occupied the space for them, Guillot said.
Alumni have also contributed to ASSP’s efforts by sending food and supplies to protesters, Guillot said.
"We have had alumni step up this weekend, especially to organize getting alumni to come and sit in over the weekend so that seniors could go graduate," she said.
SPU protesters are currently raising funds to file a lawsuit against the board of trustees for breach of fiduciary duty, arguing that the board is not acting in best interest of the school.
The GoFundMe has raised over $30,000, with an anonymous donation of $10,000. Hundreds of alumni have signed an open letter in support of the students demonstrating outside of the president’s office. A collective of ASSP, faculty and other SPU staff have asked the Board of Trustees to remove the policy by July 1.
'Leveraging just community support'
Although the school board voted to uphold the existing policy, SPU’s faculty has been “largely supportive” of the student protest, Guillot said. Many wore rainbow stoles to commencement, she said.
SPU’s Faculty Senate passed a resolution earlier this month in response to the board’s decision to uphold the policy.
The resolution recommended that the school revise the employee conduct policy to allow for “same-sex sexual activity within the context of marriage” — allowing those in same-sex marriages to be eligible for employment. It also established a task force to “explore the feasibility of affiliation” with Christian denominations other than the Free Methodist Church.
Guillot said that SPU's Provost and Vice Provost have been making sure that the building the protesters have been occupying is maintained by the school's facilities, and that other administrators have offered support as well.
"There's been so much support on SPU's campus, but the people that hold the power, like the president or the Board of Trustees, are the ones who ultimately get to make the decision," Guillot continued. "[We're] just doing whatever we can to stand up to those in power, leveraging just the community support that we have."
Guillot and other recent graduates returned after the ceremony to continue the sit-in.
That reminder of visual and tangible support that we have from people for what we're doing — that helps us not feel as alone sometimes.
chloe guillot, SPU GRADUATING SENIOR
Current students also plan to begin training incoming freshmen to keep the momentum going and prep them for the potential legal battle if SPU protesters move forward with the lawsuit against the Board of Trustees.
"If you asked me two months ago, I'd be like, 'Yeah after I graduate I'm going to let the next generation take that on and move on,'" Guillot said. "But so much has happened in the last month and a half. Me and several other people who just graduated, we're committed to staying in this fight until something changes. We plan to continue the trend of being super supportive alumni and staying engaged to continue this fight."
The graduation protest may not have been as action-oriented as other collective actions organized by SPU protesters, like the potential lawsuit against the Board of Trustees, but Guillot believes that the virality the stunt achieved added to the mounting pressure against SPU to remove the lifestyle policy.
"It is a very visual act, and graduation is a big thing," Guillot said. "People in Seattle will be like, 'I saw your TikTok,' or 'I saw you on the news and I wanted to come bring you food.' That reminder of visual and tangible support that we have from people for what we're doing — that helps us not feel as alone sometimes, when it's 2 a.m. when you'd rather not be there [at the sit-in], but you want to keep fighting."