By Mark Fefer
Portland associate Paul Southwick has proven his persuasive powers in the legal arena. Two years ago, at age 27, he argued and won a pro bono case before the Oregon State Supreme Court, and was publicly praised later by the chief justice for his skillful arguments.
These days Southwick is also deploying his skills and passion to a new cause: convincing his alma mater, George Fox University, a Christian institution in Oregon, to adopt policies more tolerant and supportive of LGBT students.
Southwick is the co-founder of OneGeorgeFox, a group of LGBTQ, and LGBTQ-friendly, George Fox alumni. Through events, regular meetings with university officials, and social networking, the group has sought to persuade the George Fox administration to change its rules forbidding homosexual relationships, permit an LGBTQ student group, and allow speakers on campus who would offer a positive message about being gay.
"The reason I’m devoting so much time to this effort is because I want to spare current and future LGBTQ students the pain and isolation that I went through in college," says Southwick. "I want them to know that it is perfectly normal to be gay, that they can still be people of faith, and that they can have satisfying relationships and a family."
Southwick has already had significant success. The University agreed to allow two speakers chosen by OneGeorgeFox to participate in a panel discussion on faith and sexuality in November, the first time that an affirming message about homosexuality has been officially allowed on campus. The event was so well attended that two overflow rooms had to be equipped with video feeds, Southwick says.
“It was definitely a historic day for George Fox and alumni who care about this issue,” says Southwick. He attributes the University’s more conciliatory stance to the outpouring of support that OneGeorgeFox has received since launching in March.
The most important responsibility of OneGeorgeFox at the moment, Southwick says, is supporting a group of current LGBTQ students in their effort to be recognized as an official George Fox student group. He’s also aiming to have an LGBTQ presence at homecoming and is lobbying to require anti-bullying training for resident life staff.
In addition to his behind-the-scenes work, Southwick has frequently been the public face of OneGeorgeFox. He was a guest last year on a popular Oregon Public Broadcasting radio show called Think Out Loud, where he described his own experience as a George Fox student experiencing same-sex attraction, and the two years he spent, at the behest of his pastor, seeking to be “re-educated.” Southwick has also been interviewed by Willamette Week, Inside Higher Ed, and other publications, and recently published a column on The Huffington Post entitled “Is There Hope for Queer Students at Conservative Christian Colleges?”
Southwick’s efforts are part of a larger national campaign to end anti-LGBTQ policies at Christian universities. Since the launch of a group called OneWheaton at Illinois’s Wheaton College in the spring of 2011, ‘One’ has become a kind of brand name for this effort to build awareness and support for LGBTQ students on Christian campuses. Last year, upon discovering that an opponent of the movement had bought up URLs that included the names OneGeorgeFox, OneWheaton, and others, Southwick helped to pressure the cybersquatter to relinquish the Web addresses.
Social media is a critical component of the campaign. Southwick recently launched a video project on Facebook called “On God’s Campus: Voices from the Queer Underground,” which presents weekly interviews with current and former students at Christian institutions around the country. “They talk about what it means to be gay and Christian, why they chose to go a Christian school where no gay relationships are recognized, why they stay, and so on,” says Southwick. The goal is to complete 100 interviews, then produce a book, using a crowdsourcing method to generate funds. “I’m the largest funder for the moment,” Southwick says.