On Tuesday, November 17, Dr. Rosaria Butterfield came to campus for a lecture titled “Sexual Identity and the Christian Faith.” The discussion focused on Butterfield’s conversion from atheism to Christianity. In particular, it focused on how she, as a lesbian, came to embrace a worldview that holds homosexuality to be a sin. The lecture was hosted by Reformed University Fellowship (RUF), Baptist Collegiate Ministries (BCM), Chi Alpha and the Wesley Foundation.
Dr. Butterfield’s lecture took place in the Great Hall of the Student Union. Before the lecture, as many guests were making their way upstairs, silent protestors stood at the head of the stairs with signs proclaiming “Love is Not a Sin” and “Love is not Conditional.” The protest was organized by Tara Grigson and Whitney Cipolla of Pride at TU and Jennie Wachowski of United Campus Ministries, among others. It did not impede traffic and was largely ignored by guests who averted their eyes from the crowd dressed in black (for the sake of uniformity) wielding rainbow colored signs.
Amidst the roughly 30 silent protesters, a few wore tags that marked them as spokespeople for the group, to answer any questions guests may have had regarding the protest.
As one of the spokespeople for the protest said, “We are protesting to show that there are people who differ in opinion than the groups who brought Dr. Butterfield here, and Dr. Butterfield herself.”
“We want to show support for LGBT+, we want them to know that there are groups on campus who do not believe that love is conditional,” the spokesperson continued.
“We want people to understand that we support freedom of speech, but at the same time we are supporting students that may be searching for something more in their lives. We want to be a visible reminder of that.”
The room was filled. Several people had to stand. A few minutes before the lecture began, some of the silent protesters entered the room and stood in the back.
The first part of Dr. Butterfield’s speech focused on how she came to be a practicing lesbian. She said she had a normal childhood and that she had considered herself heterosexual, having her first boyfriend in college and continuing to date men until the age of 28. However, she realized that she kept falling in love with women. She said her homosocial preference developed into a homosexual one.
The next part of her speech focused on her life as a lesbian. She said that “life as a lesbian felt normal.” She also spent time talking about how the LGBT community values hospitality. It is from her time in that community that she claims she honed her skills in hospitality that she now uses as a pastor’s wife.
She talked about how the treatment she received by Christians made her oppose the religion. She talked about how “the most frustrating thing” about Christians was “that they simply would not leave consenting adults alone.” She wrote an opinion piece for the local newspaper against the Promise Keepers, a Christian Men’s organization that had recently come to her town.
For that article, she received many letters, one of which defied her classification system of fan mail and hate mail. That letter was from Ken Smith, pastor of the Syracuse Reformed Presbyterian Church. It invited her to reexamine the presuppositions of her world view and invited her to dinner. Her experience with him and his wife made her sure that she was his friend, not just his project.
During this time, she was also reading the Bible extensively. She did so as a research project in order to write a book about the hatred of the religious right. She read it as an English professor, employing the same methods she does with other texts. However, reading the Bible changed her, something her friends noticed. The Bible’s notion of sin and repentance challenged her postmodern worldview, as did the notion of an omniscient and omnibenevolent God.
She found the Bible’s message both compelling and frightening. Two years after her Bible-reading project had begun, she went to Ken Smith’s church. After befriending several Christians, she still felt that she lacked understanding. She wanted God to show her why homosexuality is wrong. This led her to prayer. Another day, she converted to Christianity, taking to heart Psalm 119:56, which reads “This has become mine….”
The next part of her speech focused on the relationship between Christianity and homosexuality. For her, it has to do with pride and the idea of creating one’s own system of morality. She also said homophobia is a sin.
She noted that she does not believe that heterosexuality is the solution to homosexuality. She said, “the solution to all sin is Christ’s atoning blood.” She also said that someone can feel unwanted homosexual desire and be a Christian. She said what someone can’t do is embrace homosexuality and call it Christian. She said sin is abominable to God, never people.
She closed by saying that her protesters were right “to want a safe space to learn and to be.” She urged Christians to be hospitable and to share the whole gospel.
After her speech, members of the audience had the opportunity to ask her questions. Some of the questions were from people who appeared to agree with her. Others were from people clearly opposed to her speech. One person asked her how it felt to advocate something that increases the risk of suicide, depression and STIs in LGBT youth. Another audience member was upset that a transgender woman featured in the speech was described as having large hands.
Someone else asked about the aftermath of her conversion regarding her friends in the LGBT community. Dr. Butterfield said she betrayed them and turned her back on her community.
During the entire event, the audience was respectful and no one interrupted Dr. Butterfield.
In response to Butterfield’s message, United Campus Ministries and Pride said, “We do not believe that homosexuality is a sin. Dr. Butterfield’s interpretation does not represent the beliefs of all Christians.”
Jim Scholl, a clinical psychology doctoral student and a spokesperson for the silent protesters was asked about his reaction, and that of the other silent protesters, to Dr. Butterfield. He called what she said “thinly veiled hate speech,” and said “Overall, her message was threatening and condemning towards sexual minorities—especially towards those who subscribe to a belief in eternal life.”
He noted also that “There is a vast body of research that explores the impact of prejudice on LGBT youth. Those who are rejected by their communities or families are at increased risk of high levels of depression, use of illegal drugs, risk for HIV and STIs and suicide. This is precisely why we are engaged in a silent protest—to show support for, and protect students who were at risk.”
Those interested in listening to Dr. Butterfield’s lecture in full can find it at the TU chapter of RUF’s website under “sermons.”