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Harvard Student Body President Draws Criticism for Defending Previously Sanctioned Campus Christian Group

Lowell House is one of 12 upperclassmen houses at Harvard.
Lowell House is one of 12 upperclassmen houses at Harvard. By Addison Y. Liu
By Vivi E. Lu and Leah J. Teichholtz, Crimson Staff Writers

Harvard Undergraduate Association co-president LyLena D. Estabine ’24 has drawn criticism from some students for her public defense of Harvard College Faith and Action, a Christian campus group that was previously sanctioned for pushing out a leader who was in a same-sex relationship.

Tensions flared on Lowell House’s unmoderated student email list last week when an HCFA leader publicized a group worship meeting. Several students replied to the invitation criticizing HCFA for alleged discrimination against LGBTQ+ people.

Estabine came to the defense of HCFA over the email list, rejecting allegations that the group actively discriminates against LGBTQ+ students. Her email drew backlash, with one student publicly suggesting that she be recalled from the HUA co-presidency.

HCFA’s website says the group “welcomes students from all backgrounds.” But some undergraduates claim the group continues to discriminate against queer students — four years after it was put on a one-year probation by the College for pressuring a female leader to resign after she began dating a woman.

After Lowell resident Sarika Chawla ’23 replied all to the invitation and called HCFA “homophobic,” Estabine, an HCFA student leader, replied all to deny “any kind of discrimination” in the group.

“I personally do not tolerate homophobia or discrimination of any kind,” Estabine wrote in the email. “The bottom line: all are welcome at HCFA Doxa, Bible Course, and all other Events, regardless of their sexual orientation, race, or religious identity. Always. Guaranteed by me and the College.”

In a Saturday email to Lowell residents, the house’s faculty deans, David I. Laibson ’88 and Nina Zipser, wrote to affirm “strong support” for both LGBTQ+ students and religious students who practice faith “in ways that are non-discriminatory.” The faculty deans also invited Lowell residents to discuss the email thread at a Saturday meeting.

In a statement to The Crimson, HCFA co-presidents Katherine Wang ’23 and Felix D. Perez Diener ’23 wrote that the organization is “striving to love all people while honoring the Scriptures and our own conscience.”

“We oppose unjust discrimination and hate in all its forms, especially against queer students,” the leaders wrote. “It grieves us that many queer people have experienced hurt from faith communities, and we desire to work toward healing.”

Still, Chawla and other students said Estabine’s defense of the organization poses concerns.

In another reply to the Lowell email chain, Chawla quoted the recall clause of the HUA constitution, which states that an officer can be removed from office following a student petition and vote.

“Someone who is a leader within a homophobic or any sort of discriminatory organization like HCFA, and who continues to defend it and assert that there’s no discrimination present when there clearly is, should not be in such a position of power,” Chawla said in an interview.

Phoebe G. Barr ’24, who criticized HCFA in the Lowell email thread, said in an interview that she was “irritated” by Estabine’s email and that she had been previously warned by an HCFA Bible study leader that theologically HCFA “did not condone homosexuality.”

“It’s one thing to be receiving emails for an organization that I don’t like, and it’s another thing to see somebody telling a lie on the email list,” Barr said. “At that point, I decided I wanted to actually intervene and say, ‘I can personally guarantee that there is homophobia in this organization because I’ve experienced it.’”

Joy C. Ashford ’22-’23, who joined HCFA as a freshman, said they found the organization to be “disingenuous” about its beliefs. The group adheres to a version of Christianity that is “extremely self-destructive to queer people,” Ashford said.

“The fact that we have as our student leader somebody who believes that gay people should be celibate, I think shows just how dysfunctional [the HUA] is,” said Ashford, a former Crimson Arts chair.

In an emailed statement to The Crimson, Estabine said the HUA “condemns any and all forms of hate” toward LGBTQ+ students on campus.

“I am only one of the nine student officers of the HUA, some of which are themselves members of the LGBTQIA+ community, all of which are working hard to organize and support all students at Harvard College,” Estabine wrote. “I think it is unfair to them and to Harvard College as a whole to conflate my own personal religious sexual framework with the functionality of our new student government, which has been in full effect for less than two weeks.”

HUA co-president Travis A. Johnson ’24 wrote in a statement to The Crimson that he does not think Estabine “has done anything to warrant a recall.”

Johnson wrote that he and Estabine plan to convene a working group to address issues affecting LGBTQ+ students on campus.

“As an organization, we are committed to ensuring that Harvard College is a welcoming and open space for everyone, especially those who come from marginalized backgrounds,” Johnson said.

But Ashford said HCFA — not the HUA — should be the focus of reform.

“I don’t want people to get caught up in the HUA drama and ignore the queer people whose lives are harmed and permanently damaged by some of this toxic theology,” Ashford said.

—Staff writer Vivi E. Lu can be reached at vivi.lu@thecrimson.com. Follow her on Twitter @vivielu_.

—Staff writer Leah J. Teichholtz can be reached at leah.teichholtz@thecrimson.com. Follow her on Twitter @LeahTeichholtz.

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CollegeHouse LifeLowellReligious GroupsFront Middle FeatureHarvard Undergraduate Association