By: Mira Costello
On Feb. 22, campus ministry group Chi Alpha hosted a karaoke night in the River Crossing Campus Housing Community Building. The event was open to the public, and many students enjoyed a night of socializing and singing. However, issues arose when some students were prevented from singing the songs of their choice.
During the event, freshman Riley Leek and sophomore Dana Kelley asked to sing the song “I Kissed a Girl” by Katy Perry. According to Leek, Chi Alpha leaders said they would review the song to see if it would be permitted at the event, and returned to tell her that she would be unable to sing it.
Leek said the reason given for not allowing the song was that it contradicted the hosts’ belief that marriage is between a man and a woman.
Before requesting to sing “I Kissed a Girl,” Leek had also been prevented from singing Hozier’s “Take Me to Church,” which is critical of religion. Leek said she understood and accepted this decision.
Rob Kerr, a Chi Alpha missionary associate who was at the event, said that Chi Alpha wanted to limit songs that were explicit.
“We opened it up to the student community. We are a Christian organization, so usually, for the karaoke night, we want to stay away from songs that are overly sexualized or violent. We didn’t want anyone to be uncomfortable,” Kerr said. “There’s one student in particular who asked to do a song, and we said it was kind of anti-Christian – it was ‘Take me to Church.’ It’s not actually about church, which is kind of ironic.”
Jordan Bontrager, a student who participated in the event, said he was not allowed to sing part of the song “All Apologies” by Nirvana – the lyric, “everyone is gay.”
After being told she could not sing “I Kissed a Girl,” Leek said she spoke at length with the Chi Alpha leaders, sharing her opinions about Christian acceptance of LGBTQ+ youth as well as her own experiences with religion as a queer person.
“I explained that my father is Catholic, and there was a lot of shame that came with that. I grew up Christian, and one of my sisters is part of the LGBTQ+ community – she has a wife – and when my sister told him she was getting married, he said ‘marriage is between a man and a woman’ and he refused to walk her down the aisle,” Leek said. “It threw me back into that religious trauma that I’ve been holding onto for so long.”
Byonka Hernandez, a freshman who was at the event, weighed in.
“I was confused as to why people were allowed to sing songs with cuss words and ‘Mr. Brightside,’ given the context of the song,” Hernandez said. “I expected them to be more inclusive, as that is usually what they believe in, not to judge. But it was the total opposite.”
Leek said the incident was surprising to her given the size of IU South Bend’s queer community.
“I was personally hurt, and I could’ve handled it way better, but I just don’t feel like that is anything that should be tolerated, especially in this community,” she said.
Kerr said that after discussing the event with fellow Chi Alpha leaders, the group believes they should have handled the situation differently.
“In the moment, we made that call, but we thought back about it and I talked about it with my director, and we could’ve handled that a lot better,” Kerr said. “We think that was a mistake on our part, because we did want it to be open to the community, and to invite people in and then say, ‘you can sing, except that,’ it wasn’t as welcoming as we hoped to have been.”
A former Chi Alpha member, who requested anonymity to avoid being confronted by the organization, said that they witnessed anti-LGBTQ+ behavior and ideas from Chi Alpha during their membership in the fall semester of 2022.
“I really wanted to find Christian community. There were a few people that I considered myself friends with in the organization, and I thought it would be a good way to grow more relationships,” the former member said. “Things started off really good, and I really enjoyed it, but after a while, I felt like I did not fit into the group, and I was feeling guilt for my relationship with God. I was really starting to get comfortable with my relationship with God, and then I started going to Chi Alpha, and I was like, ‘maybe I’m not good.’”
The former member recounted a time when a transgender person came to a Chi Alpha meeting wearing a pin displaying the pronouns “he/him,” but was repeatedly referred to using “she/her” pronouns. The transgender person was also placed in the women’s group when the club split for small group time without being asked which group they preferred to be in.
The former member said this incident was troublesome to them because they have very close relationships with many people in the LGBTQ+ community.
“I love my neighbor and the people all around me unconditionally, like Jesus would, regardless of whatever sin that I think the Bible says is infiltrating their life,” they said. “I’m a Christian in the sense that I love all – will never judge, will never hate – because that’s what God is for.”
The former member said that a certain meeting in the fall – one about God-centered relationships – was a particular turning point in their membership.
“The meeting was just really encouraging heteronormative relationships, which of course is a very controversial and important topic in the Bible,” the former member said. “They never outwardly said, ‘we’re not supportive [of the LGBTQ+ community] – however, when having a conversation with more than one of them, they would say, ‘if I found out someone was willingly living a homosexual lifestyle while trying to go to church, I would like to tell them they’re living a life of sin by participating in that homosexual relationship.’”
The former member said that, while they were not surprised to hear some conservative ideas in a ministry group, hearing anti-LGBTQ+ sentiment discouraged them from being an active member, and they eventually left the group.
“A common thing in Christianity, and even in Chi Alpha, is that you’re not supposed to question the Bible and question God, which I think is a really negative aspect of Christianity,” they said. “It’s almost like individual thought was discouraged.”
Kerr said that LGBTQ+ people are welcome at Chi Alpha.
“We’ve had LGBTQ students who came in the past. We welcome anyone to our meetings if they want to come and participate. We’ve had a few who identify that way,” he said.
When asked if IU South Bend’s Chi Alpha would encourage LGBTQ+ students to grow their faith while being proud of their identity, or if those students would be encouraged to live differently, Kerr said,
“Our goal is to disciple students – bring them closer to Jesus. That’s probably as much as I want to comment,” he said. “I represent the entire club, and there’s a whole national organization, so I don’t want to start talking about our national policy and get into the weeds of that.”
The national Chi Alpha website does not provide a policy or statement regarding LGBTQ+ people or members. However, student publications from Rice University, Lawrence University, Cornell University, Winona State University and more have published reports of students experiencing anti-LGBTQ+ discrimination in their campus chapters of Chi Alpha.
During her conversation with Chi Alpha, Leek said she suggested that the group host an event with the Queer Straight Alliance on campus to open a dialogue about the beliefs of each group.
“I urged them to reach out to the Queer Straight Alliance to maybe open up a conversation, and I even specified that this does not have to be anything where anyone is trying to change your views,” Leek said. “I suggested an event where they each have a panel and people come and ask questions, and we share our points of view.”
However, according to Leek, Chi Alpha members then compared Leek’s request to sing “I Kissed a Girl” to Chi Alpha members hypothetically attending a QSA meeting and singing an anti-LGBTQ+ song.
“They mentioned something about, ‘basically what you did is like if we were to go to QSA and start singing a song about how we don’t accept gay people,’” Leek said. “I was like, that is not at all what happened here – I didn’t target you on purpose, it’s a song.”
Hernandez also reported this comparison when recalling the event.
“[A Chi Alpha leader] did compare Riley’s song to the group going to QSA and singing a song about how being gay is a sin,” Hernandez said.
QSA President Reagan Ayala provided a statement to The Preface on behalf of the QSA in response to the incident.
“The QSA is disheartened to hear about an incident occurring where a student’s freedom of expression was restricted,” the statement read. “As Indiana University South Bend is a college that prides itself on diversity, we believe the school should not allow acts such as denial of a song based on queer wording at a public karaoke night, and hope that the university will take the appropriate actions in making sure such incidents do not occur in what is to be a safe and inclusive environment for all students.”
The statement continued, “in the middle of a historic national campaign to forcibly deconvert transgender people and shove queer people back into the closet, IU South Bend has a responsibility to protect its students from harm to their wellbeing.”
When asked what he would say to students who felt hurt by the incident, Kerr told The Preface, “Sincerely, sorry about that. We’re going to try to handle that better in the future, because we want to try to be welcoming.”