PresidentsPosted: January 11, 2012
Large, suspended signs hang above the streets of San Diego, and, like metropolitan nametags, identify the neighborhoods that sprawl across the Southern Californian city. The one in Kensington is bright pink at night, and when the neon lights up it breathes a rose hue over the evening and bounces off the faces of couples walking their dogs. University Heights has one on a cherry trolley car that sits above my favorite coffee shop, and is prettier in the day, I think. The one in Normal Heights, on Adams Avenue, looks like it belongs outside a 1950’s diner, where the waitresses skate to your table with impossibly balanced trays of soda pop.
I was driving one of our school’s fifteen-passenger vans, because I was the only person with a Class B license, and someone needed to transport the nine student body presidents who had gathered at Point Loma for an annual leadership convention. Every year, the presidents from Loma’s sister schools in Massachusetts, Kansas, Ohio, Idaho, Illinois, Oklahoma, Tennessee, and Alberta came to San Diego to discuss the climates of their respective campuses: what people were talking about, what needed to change, the future of the Church of the Nazarene.
They also came because we have nice beaches, and they don’t.
We had just pulled off the 163 South, and were idling at a red light on University. In front of us, one of these nametags hung—red, with white letters—between two crimson, gold-peaked spires that stood on either side of the street.
“Welcome to Hillcrest,” I said, moving my foot from the brake and gently taking us though the intersection. “This is a fun area: it’s got a great food and art scene, the best coffee shops and used bookstores, and also happens to be the historically gay neighborhood of San Diego.”
You’d have thought I said “boobies” in a seventh grade classroom: the entire car started to giggle. I could see them pushing each other’s shoulders in the rearview mirror. One person put his hand over his mouth, searching for eye contact to affirm his surprise.
“I wonder if we’ll see any guys holding hands,” I heard one of the presidents say. Laughter swelled.
“Hopefully we only see classy gays,” said another, whatever the hell that means. The turn signal clicked like a detonator while I waited for the light to change green. Curious, I chimed in:
“Do any of you have gay students on your campuses?”
“I think we have one,” said the president from Tennessee. She was sitting next to me in the passenger’s seat.
“There’s a table of them that always sits together,” said another.
Near the back, the president from Illinois sat quietly.
“Do you all have any at Point Loma?” said Tennessee. I smirked, like you do before laying down the flush you’ve been holding the whole time.
“Yeah, actually, we do: I’m gay,” I paused. “But I like to think I’m the classy kind.” The air, now painfully pregnant, remained unstirred as I parked the van. I rolled down my window and smiled.
That afternoon, Tennessee talked to her spouse in my friend’s apartment where she was staying. She didn’t know Alissa was in the living room and could hear the entire conversation through the wafer thin walls.
“He’s gay” she whispered, the way people do when they’re afraid even saying the word might taint their pristine spirits. “And he’s the Director of Spiritual Life. I mean, where are we going to draw the lines?”
Late that night, I was siting in my office while some of the presidents were talking in the lobby of our student government suite. The administrators from the schools were staying at a hotel a few miles from campus, and they’d forgotten a briefcase in one of their meetings that day.
“Can you run this over there, Todd?” Allison—the president from Loma—asked. I grabbed the keys, and started down the stairs toward the van.
“Hey, can I come with you?” Illinois called from behind me.
“Yeah, totally. I’ve got 14 seats.”
Driving down the hill away from campus, Illinois spoke.
“I just wanted you to know I get you. Like, I get the whole sexuality thing.” Confused, I asked for clarification.
“What do you mean?”
“I mean, I just get it. Questioning sexuality and stuff. I know what it’s like.” I pressed more.
“I’m still not sure I understand,” I said. He paused, and breathed deeply.
“I’m gay, too.”
We talked about how he hadn’t told anyone yet, and how he wasn’t sure what to think of everything. I told him he needed to break up with the girl he was dating. He promised he would.
“Don’t give up on the church,” I said. “It’s big, and gracious, and there’s tons of space for people like you and me.”
“I won’t,” he said. We sat in the van for two hours before cracking the doors and heading for bed.
Turns out the presidents didn’t know their schools as well as they thought: after they left, I got emails from students at each of the campuses—even Tennessee, students who felt trapped and alone and frustrated and scared.
“You’re not alone,” I promised them all. “Not a bit.”