Kristi Holt was shaking when she hit send.
She was about to reveal something to the entire faculty and staff of Seattle Pacific University, the Christian institution where she worked, risking her job in the process.
“My name is Kristi Holt and I am a lesbian,” her message began.
She was making a statement even to herself, one that couldn’t be erased the next day. “It was liberating as much as it was terrifying,” recalled Holt, 27.
That pretty much sums up her mindset as she begins a new school year as an SPU chemistry lab coordinator and adjunct instructor, plunging back into activism targeting a school policy against hiring people in same-sex relationships — a push that has become a huge part of her life since she wrote that email in June 2021.
Holt is among 16 staff, faculty, students and alumni who filed suit this week, claiming a group of trustees backing the policy is violating their fiduciary duty and pushing the school to the brink of ruin as it loses students, faculty, staff and dissenting board members.
The lawsuit taps into a fiery debate that has roiled the campus for two years and helped shine a local and national spotlight on SPU. State Attorney General Bob Ferguson is investigating the school for possible illegal discrimination. SPU, which says its hiring policy conforms to teachings of the Free Methodist Church, has struck back with a suit against Ferguson, claiming violation of religious freedom.
Similar turmoil is happening at religious institutions across the country, with the U.S. Supreme Court ruling this week that Yeshiva University, an Orthodox Jewish school in New York, must comply with a state order recognizing an LGBTQ+ student group.
What’s unique about SPU, according to Paul Southwick, a lawyer representing plaintiffs in the latest suit, is the prolonged backlash by students, faculty and staff to a policy they deem discriminatory.
“I’ve never seen anything like it,” Southwick said this week.
Holt’s experiences at SPU help explain why. Before taking a staff position, she attended the school as an undergraduate. Until that point, she said, “I had only ever been in evangelical spaces. And to me that meant not affirming. However, SPU challenged that for me.”
While SPU’s official position might lead one to believe the school is deeply conservative on issues related to sexual identity, that was not the reality Holt found when she arrived on the leafy Queen Anne campus as a teenager from a small Kitsap Peninsula town, schooled by a youth pastor who preached evolution was the devil and queerness a lifestyle.
SPU opened a door she walked through years later. While she has not made this public until now, she recently began her first relationship with a woman.
“It’s completely changed the game for me,” she said.
With long, blonde curls, Holt normally has a bubbly vibe that invites comparison, at least for one student, to Ms. Frizzle, the fun, eccentric and frizzy-haired teacher in “The Magic School Bus” children’s TV and book series.
Underneath the surface, though, Holt is struggling to reconcile the school she loves with a policy she sees as telling her she does not belong.
“It feels a lot heavier now.”
Maybe there’s room for me
The first thing Holt noticed about SPU, touring as a prospective student, was that people on campus looked different from she was used to. They wore floral shirts and socks with sandals. Some had brightly colored hair, others shaved heads — “all sorts of glorious ways of expression,” said Holt, raised in a sea of boot cut jeans and polo shirts. “It felt like an exciting place.”
SPU had changed a lot from its founding in 1891 by Free Methodists, known for early opposition to slavery, participation in the temperance movement and strict behavioral code, according to Kevin Neuhouser, a sociology professor at the university. When he joined the faculty in 1996, the school didn’t allow dancing on campus, a policy since changed.
While the founders were rigid in some ways, they believed in an ecumenical vision. That same spirit has reigned over a drive for racial and ethnic diversity in recent times. Students of color now make up more than half of SPU’s undergraduate enrollment of roughly 2,600 students. (Total enrollment stands at about 3,400.)
A surprising number of students — 22% of respondents in a survey last year — identify as LGBTQ+. Increased racial and ethnic diversity may have attracted other kinds of diversity, theorized Neuhouser, who advises an LGBTQ+ student club, Haven. The university, after some resistance and despite conflicting rules for faculty and staff, recognized the club as an official student group in 2014.
Holt did not join Haven. Queerness, then, seemed incompatible with her faith. She began to question when she took theology classes with Professor David Nienhuis.
“Look, there is nowhere in scripture that is directly affirming of queerness,” Holt remembers Nienhuis saying. “But then he went on to explain that there was really no concept of queerness like there is in today’s culture.”
“The concept of two people of the same sex being in a committed, covenanted relationship — it’s just unheard of in the ancient world,” Nienhuis explained when asked about his teachings. He said his aim is to explain the scriptural debate about queerness, rather than take a position.
The complexity struck Holt as hopeful. “Wait a minute, maybe there’s room here at the table to accept who I am as a person,” she said.
Still, Holt graduated with a degree in physiology without coming to terms with her sexuality. Afterward, while she was working in France as a researcher, an SPU chemistry professor told her about an open lab-coordinator position.
The application process entailed an interview about her faith with a human resources manager, Holt said. But she doesn’t recall anyone asking about her sexual orientation, or pointing out faculty and staff lifestyle expectations that forbid sex outside of marriage between a man and a woman.
“That was sort of buried in an HR onboarding experience after I was hired,” she said.
That was in 2019. Not long after, the COVID-19 pandemic hit. Holt found herself with a lot of time at home, thinking. She finally identified as a lesbian, first to herself and then to her sister.
“I took it as a celebration,” said Sarah Holt, who recalled being aware her sister was struggling with something growing up, but not knowing what it was. “She’s finally discovering who’s she’s meant to be.”
Holt’s next step was to proclaim her identity to SPU’s community.
A cri de coeur
Outrage was simmering on campus.
In January 2021, an SPU adjunct nursing instructor named Jéaux Rinedahl filed a discrimination suit against the university, saying he had been told he wouldn’t be considered for a full-time position because he’s gay.
It wasn’t the first time furor broke out over an SPU hiring decision. In the late 1990s, SPU rescinded an offer to poet Scott Cairns due to a heterosexual erotic work judged to be too sexually explicit, causing a faculty morale crisis and a flurry of press attention.
But Cairns said “no one blinked an eye” when SPU hired him six years ago. He currently directs a masters-level creative writing program and calls the university’s dictums on same sex-relationships “shameful.”
Some on campus were until recently dimly aware, if aware at all, of those rules.
Christopher Hanson, an assistant professor of music, said he asked SPU faculty about them before being hired three years ago and was told they were “historical documents” with little relevance to today’s campus.
As that was proved wrong by the Rinedahl suit, protests heated up, causing painful convulsions on all sides. LGBTQ+ faculty, staff and students felt their identity was under attack, and so did those who believed changing the hiring policy would compromise their religious convictions and lead to the school’s disaffiliation from the Free Methodist Church, which the denomination threatened.
Into the vortex stepped Hanson, who came out as bisexual in an email to faculty and staff. He did so, he said, to show that whatever the administration might think, “queer people do work here.”
Holt followed with a cri de coeur that was, perhaps above all, a religious reckoning.
“I fought so hard to hide who God had made me from God — and believed it a holy fight. But in that dark place built of walls to keep everyone out, God waited patiently, right outside the closet door I constructed. I do not fear who I am now because, in Christ, I find myself both held and free. I am not a different person, but I am transformed.”
Both Holt and Hanson said they received overwhelmingly positive responses to their emails, unsurprising given a recent faculty vote in which 80% supported changing the hiring policy to allow people in same-sex marriages.
One faculty member came to Holt’s office bearing gifts, including friendship bracelets bearing a lesbian pride flag with pink, red, orange and white stripes.
The administration doled out no repercussions. Holt and Hanson believe it’s because of a kind of loophole: The hiring policy targets sexual conduct, not identity. Hanson is married to a woman. Holt said she was celibate when she publicly declared herself a lesbian. (The SPU administration declined to make university officials available for an interview.)
Now that she’s in a relationship, Holt said, her activism is more grounded. Before, she said, she was fighting for her “theoretical rights.” But her job is also more at risk.
Holt said it’s a scary place to be, even if the job was always meant to be transitional, most likely on the way to graduate school. She said she wanted to go on the record about her relationship nonetheless, albeit without providing details, because she sees it as telling a truth important to the current crisis.
Meeting Holt on SPU’s campus in late August, the fear is not apparent. She’s eager to show her workspace — made into a paean of queerness. Gay and lesbian pride flags are everywhere: on her lab coat, outside her office door, draped across one office wall, on the window of the lab where she prepares experiments for undergraduates.
“Chris and I are testing the boundaries of how out-loud queer we can be,” she said, referring to Hanson.
Camping chairs and yoga maps are tucked into a corner of her office, remnants of a rolling two-month sit-in last spring by students, faculty and staff protesting the hiring policy.
She sat behind her desk, gearing up for another protest a few days later — a faculty and staff walkout during a speech by SPU interim President Pete Menjares — and contemplated her future.
Sooner or later, SPU probably won’t be in it.
“Leaving SPU, for me, would be a bit like leaving home and trying to find my own way,” Holt said. “So it is daunting. But it’s inevitable. It’s coming.”