This is the story of how a dozen-ish LGBTQ students and allies met the most famous lesbian twins in the world.
We were a giddy mix of lifelong fans, casual listeners, and curious newbies when we walked into the room and sat in a huddle across from Tegan and Sara Quin, who together form the Canadian indie pop band Tegan and Sara. To our delight, they were eager to meet us too.
They were surprised by us, a group of LGBTQ students at a Christian college. Neither of them are religious, and their high visibility in and activism for the LGBTQ community makes them wary of highly religious spaces. They shared during our conversation that following one south Asian show, where they performed in a church space that did not allow LGBTQ people to attend its services, the band decided they would no longer play in religious institutions in order to maintain safety for their LGBTQ fanbase.
Yet there they were. At Calvin College. And as much as we wanted to ask them questions, Tegan and Sara had a lot of questions for us. It was a strange situation: Many of us went into the meet-up hoping to learn more about the lives of two inspiring, world-changing women, but they turned it around and asked: What is it like to go to school here? How are you supported? Who can you turn to on this campus?
Good questions. Tough questions. Questions that helped them decide to do the show in the first place. When they received the offer from Calvin, they were hesitant: it’s a nonaffirming religious institution. But other artists, like Sufjan Stevens, told them about these conversations with students. In this case, they were specifically interested in meeting with LGBTQ students. So they agreed to the gig. And in a way, they came to Calvin to see us. Fifteen students and allies who weren’t supported by the institution, who couldn’t see LGBTQ lives in Calvin’s faculty or staff—but for half an hour, we could see ourselves in Tegan and Sara. While we were still on Calvin’s campus—and truly, this was rare—we could see hope for our futures.
The stories Calvin students and alumni have unearthed about Ken Heffner and the Student Activities Office (SAO) in the past week or so have been remarkable, and I think it’s completely fair to say that SAO, and Ken in particular, influenced more lives for the better than most facets of Calvin College. I don’t find that conversations about sexuality and gender are the most important hallmarks of Ken’s influence—Chimes’ op-ed page and the Save SAO Facebook group have more than enough stories to prove as much—but I do think it’s important to acknowledge that SAO occupied a place in LGBTQ conversations at Calvin that no other institutional body could.
Almost a decade before LGBTQ students had any sort of affinity group on campus, Ken brought the lesbian folk rock duo Indigo Girls to Calvin, and they put on two sold-out shows. In 2012, SAO received heavy pushback from donors for hosting the band Fun. during its Campus Consciousness tour, a campaign that was focused on LGBTQ equality—and school administration backed Ken, drawing ire from donors while demonstrating the institution’s commitment to SAO and to experiencing and discerning culture.
In my time at Calvin, conversations following SAO events allowed more freedom of thought than any other discussions of sexuality or gender in non-classroom settings on campus. Unlike events put on by the Sexuality Series, chapel sermons, or dorm workshops, SAO conversations weren’t prefaced with the 1973 stance on homosexuality of the Christian Reformed Church. We didn’t have to talk about Moonlight after first hearing that homosexuality is a corrupt aspect of the fall. We could meet with and listen to Julien Baker, a Christian lesbian folk singer, without a representative from Campus Ministries monitoring our every word. Our time with Tegan and Sara wasn’t mired by the rhythmic reminder that Calvin’s only sanctioned paths are heterosexual marriage or lifelong celibacy.
With SAO events, LGBTQ students could just be. We could still disagree about sexuality; nonaffirming people still had a place in the conversation. But for once, the nonaffirming viewpoint didn’t automatically have the upper hand. We had room to breathe. We had room to grow.
And for thirty minutes, we had a room with Tegan and Sara.
Gwyneth Findlay is a writer and editor working in publishing in Grand Rapids, Michigan. She graduated from Calvin in 2018 with a degree in writing and minors in French and gender studies. She also writes for the new Calvin alumni fiction blog, Presticogitation.