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UPDATED: February 18, 2018 at 2:05 a.m.
Bearing rainbow-colored signs and wrapped in pride flags, students and faculty crowded into Emerson Hall Friday night to protest Jackie Hill-Perry, a speaker invited by religious group Harvard College Faith and Action who has been an outspoken critic of homosexuality.
Hill-Perry, who writes that she was “saved from a lifestyle of homosexual sin and the like” on her website, has often spoken publicly about her sexual preferences. She claims God helped her see that remaining in a homosexual relationship would violate Christian teachings.
At the event and in days prior, some students criticized HCFA for inviting Hill-Perry to campus, calling her homophobic and arguing she condones conversion therapy, a discredited practice meant to change a person’s sexual identity or orientation.
HCFA invited Hill-Perry to campus as part of its weekly Doxa meeting, a regular gathering during which group members worship, share testimonies, and listen to the week’s chosen speaker.
HCFA co-presidents Scott C. Ely ’18 and Molly L. Richmond ’18 said in an interview Thursday they invited Hill-Perry because of what they called her “compelling story.”
"It was not our intention to promote controversy at all," Richmond said. "We intended this conversation to primarily internal, and we were not intending it to reach that large of an audience."
Nonetheless, both said they welcomed protesters to attend the event.
"[We welcome] everyone that wants to attend and be a part of the event," Ely said. "Doxa's always been a space where we hope to commune, to challenge, to change; that's our group's mission for Doxa."
In her speech Friday, Hill-Perry urged homosexual Christians to deny themselves same-sex relationships out of a sense of duty to God. She spoke to a large crowd packed into Emerson 105, a lecture hall that typically seats around 300 people.
“The model for how we are to deny ourselves, whether that applies to our greed, to our lust, self-denial is not optional for the Christian,” she said.
She added she believes those who pursue same-sex attractions are “broken.”
“There is not such a thing as being born gay, but there is such a thing as being born broken, broken by sin,” said Hill-Perry.
Roughly two dozen students and faculty members attended the event to silently protest Hill-Perry as she spoke. The demonstrators lined up in the back of the lecture hall holding signs reading “One Queer Harvard” and “Gay—It’s in My DNA.”
HCFA member Liam F. Keohane ’19, who said he helped organize the protest, said his goal in demonstrating against Hill Perry was to raise awareness “in the greater Harvard community” about what he called her problematic views on homosexuality.
“People were really shocked about it because normally Doxa, they’ll bring in outside speakers, sometimes they’re controversial speakers, but not especially controversial speakers,” he said. “Certainly not someone who’s on a speaking tour about repressing sexual desire for Jesus.”
Some professors who joined in the protest Friday night said they disagreed with Hill-Perry’s ideas about sexuality.
“The history of this speaker and the things that she keeps promoting are things that basically alienate and threaten the existence of queer students on campus,” said Ahmed Ragab, a professor at the Divinity School. “I think it is a problem to have a speaker that promotes this kind of discourse.”
Other faculty members said they participated in the protest to support queer students at Harvard. Sophia Roosth, a professor in the history of science department, said she attended because she wants queer-identifying undergraduate and graduate students at Harvard to know they can have “a life that is both queer and religiously fulfilling.”
As news of Hill-Perry’s visit spread across campus earlier this week on social media, some students—including some HCFA members—started a petition calling on the religious group to rescind the invitation. The petition has garnered over 200 signatures to date.
“Ms. Hill-Perry, a self-proclaimed Christian activist, has made a career founded on homophobia and ignorance, under the guise of a journey to faith,” the petition reads. “We are deeply concerned that HCFA is giving Ms. Hill-Perry a very public platform to speak about her harmful and hateful beliefs.”
In an email sent to club members earlier this week, members of HCFA’s executive board wrote they were upset by the backlash against Hill-Perry’s visit. But they also wrote that they believed hosting Hill-Perry would prompt important conversations about Christianity.
“The gospel is one which asks much of us. It asks that we recognize our own brokenness and invite God’s redeeming power into all areas of our life—from how we think about our money, to how we think about drinking, to how we talk about people, to how we seek restorative justice, to how we think about our sexuality,” they wrote. “So, we have decided to continue with our speaker tonight, even amidst the concern and controversy.”
HCFA rejects homophobia and conversion therapy "100 percent," according to Ely.
Hill-Perry’s visit comes at a time when students have debated the merits and drawbacks of inviting controversial speakers to campus.
In Feb. 2017, student protesters attended a talk given by ex-pharmaceutical executive Martin Shkreli. In August, the Open Campus Initiative—a group that aims to “test” the commitment of elite universities like Harvard to free speech—invited controversial scientist Charles Murray to speak on campus.
In an interview after the event, Hill-Perry said she does not endorse conversion therapy. She said that, unlike proponents of conversion therapy—who insist that all homosexual Christians must become straight—she thinks it is acceptable for people with same-sex attractions not to have homosexual relationships as long as they remain single.
“There are some Christians who will always be same-sex attracted but they are also empowered by the spirit of God to live holy lives in light of their same-sex attraction,” she said.
When asked if she believes it is better for a homosexual person to remain single than to enter into a homosexual relationship, she said, “Yeah.”
“Unto the glory of God, absolutely,” she added.
—Staff writer Simone C. Chu contributed to the reporting of this story.
—Staff writer Paula M. Barberi can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @paulambarberi.
—Staff writer Caroline S. Engelmayer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @cengelmayer13.
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