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Convictions and consequences

The backstory of Isabella Chow’s stand for Biblical sexuality before the UC Berkeley student senate

Convictions and consequences

Handout (Isabella Chow)

When Isabella Chow, a student senator at the University of California, Berkeley, decided to abstain from a pro-LGBT vote and instead explain her Christian views, she knew she’d have to weather a storm. She just didn’t expect that storm to involve a torrent of F-bombs and demands for her resignation.

Her campus political party broke ties with her. Groups she once represented disavowed her. More than 1,000 people signed a petition calling for her resignation because of her “blatantly homophobic and transphobic views.” A club she’d been a member of since freshman year voted her out. Berkeley’s main school newspaper, The Daily Californian, ran an editorial criticizing her, while refusing to publish an op-ed she wrote explaining her decision. The paper said the op-ed “utilized rhetoric that is homophobic and transphobic by the Daily Cal’s standards.”

The storm began brewing when Chow received the agenda a week before the Oct. 31 senate meeting. On the agenda was a resolution opposing President Donald Trump’s proposal to define sex in Title IX as a person’s biological sex. LGBT groups such as the Queer Alliance Resource Center and the Queer Student Union championed this student resolution, which condemned the proposed Title IX changes as “purposefully trans-exclusive” and called for the student senate to “publicly reinforce their support of transgender, non-binary, and gender non-conforming students.” 

Chow, a 20-year-old junior who’s double-majoring in business and music, wasn’t sure how to vote on this proposal: She agreed that the LGBT community should be protected from discrimination and harassment, but as a Christian, she hesitated over clauses that endorsed groups on campus whose primary mission is to promote the LGBT identity and lifestyle. Where did it cross the line for her? And if she decided she could not in good conscience support the resolution, should she vote no, or abstain? How would she explain her decision to a community that doesn’t share her beliefs? 

For Chow, this wasn’t an unexpected dilemma—she’d been having discussions about this issue with pastors and campus ministers for more than a year. She knew what she believed from a Biblical perspective, but wondered how to apply that truth in the complex intersection of faith and politics.

So Chow sent the draft of the resolution to several Christian campus leaders, asking for their thoughts. Eventually, after hearing various opinions, she decided to abstain from the vote. The Sunday before the Oct. 31 vote, she told her political party, Student Action, that she couldn’t endorse the resolution. 

Over the next few days, Chow said, “the conversation went to, You either fully support this vote, or you’re out.” She decided to stick to her convictions. 

On the night before the Oct. 31 senate meeting, Student Action voted to oust her from the party. It sent her a copy of a press release the group planned to publish. On that draft, the party members wrote that Chow opposed “reproductive health and wellness resources, legal protections for survivors of sexual violence, and community space for vulnerable members of our student body”—a claim Chow told me is “completely false.” 

Alarmed that her views might be misrepresented, she prepared a five-paragraph statement explaining why she chose to abstain. The next evening at the senate meeting, she read her statement. It began, “I have said, and will always say, that discrimination against or harassment of any person or people group is never, ever okay.” She condemned people who bully others under the guise of Christianity. In God’s eyes and her own, she said, the LGBT community is “significant, valid, wanted, and loved.” 

I have said, and will always say, that discrimination against or harassment of any person or people group is never, ever okay.  —Isabella Chow

Her statement continued: “As a Christian, I personally do believe that certain acts and lifestyles conflict with what is good, right, and true. I believe that God created male and female at the beginning of time, and designed sex for marriage between one man and one woman. For me, to love another person does not mean that I silently concur when, at the bottom of my heart, I do not believe that your choices are right or the best for you as an individual.” 

That paragraph—expressing a traditional, Christian view that many Americans uphold—ultimately sparked the barrage of attacks. One fellow senator who had sponsored the bill challenged her, saying, “I don’t feel comfortable being told that I’m valid and then saying that you disagree with me and my community.” Every other senator voted for the bill, except one who was absent. After the meeting, Chow went home to study for midterms the next day. 

By the next morning, the news had exploded at the school. Heads turned when Chow walked across the campus, and her cell phone beeped with social media alerts. Disaffiliation notices piled into her email inbox. Online, people compared her to the KKK and called her “a terrible example of Christian hypocrisy.” Chow tried to ignore social media, but eventually even the vibrations of her phone roiled her emotions so much that she had to leave her phone in a locker so she could concentrate on her midterms.

Berkley handout

LGBTQ+ at UC Berkeley (Berkley handout)

The following week, on Nov. 7, Chow braced herself as she walked into the next senate meeting. She had told her Christian community that she didn’t want any counterprotest activities, “because it won’t heal wounds.” Instead, a group of churches and campus fellowships gathered off campus at a church-rental facility and prayed for her while she attended the meeting. They sent a note to Chow: “You’re going to sit there and be yelled at, but at the same time, know that we’re praying for you, your team, and the LGBT community.”

At the meeting, a big group of protesters was ready for her. Someone had hung a giant banner behind her seat: “Senator Chow Resign Now!” Hundreds of students squeezed into the room to voice their hurt and rage. One by one, they stepped up to the microphone to address Chow. 

According to the senate minutes, one student said she was a practicing Catholic who struggled to attend church after hearing Chow’s statement. Another said her gay brother struggled with drug addiction and depression because his conservative town refused to accept him. One student read the names of 22 transgender people who were killed, and condemned those who voted a “homophobic and transphobic” candidate into office. Many quoted Bible verses like 1 John 4:16 and 1 Corinthians 13:1—most opponents claimed they weren’t condemning Christianity but Chow’s purported misuse of Scripture against the LGBT community. 

UC Berkeley birthed the Free Speech Movement in 1964, but this incident is just the latest crisis threatening the school’s historic image as a bastion for free speech and inclusivity. One student at the meeting said there was no space for conservatism that was “hateful,” adding that for such ideas, freedom of speech should be revoked. Another called Chow’s speech “corny as hell” and said remarks can kill people.  

The onslaught of harsh, sometimes vulgar comments dragged on for three hours. Three students stepped up to publicly support Chow. When one mentioned that he voted for Chow because she was pro-life, the audience erupted into mocking laughter. Meanwhile, Chow sat through the entire ceremony with a grim expression, provoking one student to exclaim, “Senator Chow, are you even listening to us? Do you even care?” 

None of them knew that Chow was internally fighting the urge to burst into tears. Her parents, also present at the meeting, struggled to watch their daughter being publicly attacked. Chow didn’t want her parents to see her distress, so she waited until they left before sitting with a friend to cry. “If I didn’t have the encouragement and prayers of the community, leading up to the vote and the week after and even now, I would have buckled in on Day 1,” she told me.

But the hardest part of that meeting, Chow said, was witnessing “the wounded hearts and broken narratives that are behind all the anger and the hate.” Some students cried as they shared personal stories of their LGBT identity. Chow saw that “each one of these people who are so angry has been hurt, and oftentimes been hurt by the church.” It made her realize how much they all, including her, needed Jesus for healing and grace.

Meanwhile, good things are happening because of the incident, Chow said. Campus ministries that barely connect are gathering to pray and talk about how to move on, how to reach out to the LGBT community with love and truth. Fellow Christians on campus are opening up about their own same-sex struggles and how they wrestle with God through it. They’re re-watching the video from the Nov. 7 senate meeting to better understand painful LGBT experiences. 

Still, Chow is human. At times, she has wanted to wallow in self-pity and ask, “God, why me? Why put me in this position?” That’s when she asks people to pray for her and declares her thanksgiving to God: “God, I trust that You’re good, that You’re still sovereign in this.” 

That prayer helps her stand her ground despite the constant demands for her resignation from the UC Berkeley student senate. 

“If no one represents the truth, then who will?” she said. “If I was elected to be a voice for such a time as this, the light doesn’t stop shining when the darkness gets darker, the voice doesn’t stop speaking when it’s being shut down. This is not a time to back down. It’s a time to continue shining the light of Christ in all love, all grace, all humility.” 

Sophia Lee

Sophia Lee

Sophia is a features reporter for WORLD Magazine. She graduated from the University of Southern California with degrees in print journalism and East Asian language and culture. She lives in Los Angeles with her cat, Shalom. Follow Sophia on Twitter @SophiaLeeHyun.

Comments

  • Kevin
    Posted: Tue, 11/20/2018 05:03 pm

    I'm a little confused as to who is the intolerant party here.

  • Mike B's picture
    Mike B
    Posted: Tue, 11/20/2018 08:51 pm

    Imagine what might have happened if instead of abstaining she instead voted no? 

    1 Peter 4:3-4 (NIV)

    3For you have spent enough time in the past doing what pagans choose to do—living in debauchery, lust, drunkenness, orgies, carousing and detestable idolatry. 4They think it strange that you do not plunge with them into the same flood of dissipation, and they heap abuse on you.

  • Steve SoCal
    Posted: Tue, 11/20/2018 10:52 pm

    It is certainly good to pray for these people who are being so abusive towards Isabella. Their anger does not reflect any sense of peace inside, and they need God's peace.  Christians also need to remember to support each other in prayer, words, and deeds.  I'm glad that she has some believing friends and family to encourage her.

  • follower
    Posted: Wed, 11/21/2018 06:41 am

    Courage your name is Isabella Chow.  There is a tough price to pay for publically serving Jesus.  We must be loving to those who oppose us but stand firm with the Lord.  Isabella Chow, you do not stand alone, continue to share the light. It is difficult to stand up for Christ in a culture that is becoming fiercely antagonistic.  There is a price to be paid, but we must pay it without becoming the haters we face.  Thank you, Sophia Lee, I needed this message.  

  • AlanE
    Posted: Wed, 11/21/2018 03:21 pm

    Chow saw that “each one of these people who are so angry has been hurt, and oftentimes been hurt by the church.”

    Perhaps, but my guess is most of those cases of "hurt" were no more than the "hurt" Chow herself was guilty of. Simple disagreement is clearly enough to incur the wrath--and baseless charges--of the masses.

    When you allow the activists determine what is hurtful, anything passes as hurtful. One of the ways you justify that kind of anger is to keep reminding yourself and people of like mind how hurtful everyone who dares to differ is. Soon, you have a room full of affirmation of your own opinion. And any contrary viewpoint that dares to enter the room is, by unanimous acclamation, hurtful.

    The battle is spiritual, and it is profound. And, certainly there have been times and places where professing Christians have been hurtful, but I don't think that's the real issue here. 

  • JerryM
    Posted: Wed, 11/21/2018 04:08 pm

    God strengthen all of the current and future Isabella Chows who are contemplating and actively making a bold and loving stand for truth.

    God forgive your people for the phariseeism our words and actions have often reflected. 

  • Rich277
    Posted: Thu, 11/22/2018 04:22 am

    Are there connections to the Asia Bibi story here?  Isabella Chow is not seen as just politely disagreeing with this community; she is blaspheming their god.

  • West Coast Gramma's picture
    West Coast Gramma
    Posted: Fri, 11/23/2018 12:44 pm

    What I'm hearing is a huge, cultural shift away from the Western Christianity that has dominated First World nations for centuries. It's happening everywhere. Large masses of people are waking up to discover that they don't fit in to the social norms that more or less worked for centuries. It's a tidal wave of cultural rebellion. The Bible used to be one of the pillars of Western society, but it is no longer. In other nations, such as China, their cultural norms are also being challenged.

    How should a Christian respond? Not politically. We are no longer the defining, dominant culture. We are out. Christ, however, never aimed his message at cultures and national institutions. He called his disciples by name one by one. Christians are individually baptized. It definitely is a challenging time for Christians, but I think that as Christians refocus on Christ and on the message of salvation and less on the political scene around them, they will begin to see that as far as individuals go, Christ still maintains his victory. Perhaps we need to focus on our own morality and that of our churches and adjust to the fact that we are no longer the cultural norm in our changing society? 

  • Bob C
    Posted: Fri, 11/23/2018 01:47 pm

    Looking at it from the LGBQT+ side, they see that the Man and Women, a family with children, as the traditional norm. There is no argument which exists to change the reality of that. Many of the people in the LGBTQ+ community want, not just tolerance, but open agreement and support that their (alternative) lifestyle is justifiable the same as the traditional norm.  Meaning, there is no possible argument which can be used to challenge them. The reasons Ms.Chow gives for abstaining are irrelevant in their minds simply because she did not vote, “yes”.  Simply the fact that Ms. Chow disagrees resulted in an explosion of violent opposition where they seek to silence her.  I am glad Ms. Chow stood her ground. I am sorry for all the abuse that was heaped upon her.  I am glad the Christian organizations on campus are banding together to figure out how they reach out to the LGBQT+ community.  Hey Sophia Lee great reporting!        

  • phillipW's picture
    phillipW
    Posted: Fri, 11/30/2018 01:54 pm

    All of this reminds me of what happened to Lot in Sodom and Gomorrah.

  • DANIEL WISLEY
    Posted: Sat, 12/01/2018 09:08 pm

    One person acting with courage strengthens the spines of others. Thank you Isabella.

  • BRUCE BRANAN
    Posted: Mon, 12/03/2018 06:07 pm

    Isabella Chow, you are a hero to me and my family!  Thank you for your courage and your grace.  I am praying for you.

  • SAWGUNNER
    Posted: Mon, 12/03/2018 06:47 pm

    Amen Bruce.

    As Orwell observed "In a time of universal deceit, TELLING THE TRUTH is a revolutionary act"

  • VSKluth's picture
    VSKluth
    Posted: Wed, 12/05/2018 12:32 pm

    The stunning, irrational, hypocritical response of the wicked clearly indicate what's in their hearts. Isabella, they're not mad at you, they are mad at the Jesus in you.