Trans student’s suicide at Redeemer University sparks demands for change

“Many people predicted something like this would happen”

Bekett Noble spent years advocating for LGBTQ2S+ students at Redeemer University, a Reformed Christian university in Ancaster, Ontario. The 34-year-old trans psychology major had meetings with staff about the daily microaggressions queer students faced; they helped form the Genesis club, an unsanctioned club for LGBTQ2S+ students; and they worked with university president Dr. David Zietsma to establish the first gender-neutral bathroom on campus. But in a scheduled email sent to the Redeemer community on Nov. 24, Noble said that they found that officials were unwilling to change a culture that was harming queer students’ mental, physical and spiritual health. 

Noble died by suicide on Nov. 23. The next day, the school lowered its flag to half-mast and cancelled classes; three days after they died, Megg Markettos, a close friend of Noble, said she received a supportive call from Zietsma. 

But publicly, and on social media, it was business as usual. On Twitter, Instagram and Facebook, Redeemer continued publishing a steady stream of Christmas-themed posts. On Nov. 29, it posted photos of a student crafts fair. On Dec. 2, it posted a blog post about the origins of a worship tradition. On Dec. 5, it promoted its Christmas concert; the day after that, it announced it was hiring a computer technician.

The school published these posts despite a growing number of baffled, dismayed and outraged replies and messages from people demanding to know why the university hadn’t acknowledged Noble’s death. People commented on these posts with news reports about Noble’s death, with sardonic questions about the school driving its students to suicide, with the hashtags #JusticeForBekett and #DoBetterForBekett. A screenshot of an email which Xtra reviewed, in which a Redeemer professor (who did not respond to a request for comment by time of publication) denied that the school should be a “safe space” started circulating on social media.

Redeemer posted a statement on Dec. 7 that acknowledged that a student had died and that the school would invest in mental health initiatives. Without naming Noble or LGBTQ2S+ issues specifically, the school said that it would seek to ensure that “every single member” of the Redeemer community “feels cared for and supported” while “remaining faithful to Redeemer’s Reformed Christian mission and purpose.” This drew further outrage, and a few days later, the school published a memorial post of Noble—which, commenters pointed out, avoided using their pronouns or saying they were trans. 

“I’m still not pleased with the way Redeemer handled it,” Markettos says. “I think that you need to tell people the name of the person who lost their life. Bekett [who had multiple on-campus jobs] was also an employee. If I died, and if my employer didn’t say my name in a message—well, I’d be horrified.”

 

Still, despite expressing outrage at the way the school handled Noble’s death, none of the Redeemer graduates Xtra spoke to—who attended the school between 2004 and 2019—were surprised about what happened to Noble. Liv (Olivia) Schultz, who graduated in 2018, called being at Redeemer “the darkest period of my life”; Jason, a copywriter who graduated in 2009 and wanted to go by his first name only, said he thought Noble “could’ve been [him].” 

These negative experiences, moreover, aren’t unique to these graduates: The Rainbow Report, a collection of almost 40 stories from LGBTQ2S+ current and former Redeemer students that students and alumni gave to administration in 2020, describes a university whose culture instilled “utter lonely agony” in its LGBTQ2S+ students. The school does this while receiving federal funding in the form of grants; in 2020, Toronto lawyer Susan Ursel told CBC that its policies forbidding same-sex intimacy discriminated against LGBTQ2S+ people.

“Many people predicted something like this would happen,” Ray Louter, who was a theatre professor at Redeemer for 35 years, told Xtra

“A lot of us look back on our time at Redeemer and feel exhausted, terrified, angry,” Schultz said. “And when this thing about Bekett came out, we were not surprised. Because this theology does lead to death.”

An isolated environment

Redeemer University is an isolated place, Jason says, both over the phone last week and in an open letter he sent to Xtra. This isolation manifests itself both physically—you need a car to meaningfully get away from the school, which has around 1,000 students—and socially. 

Former students describe policies that are similar to other Christian universities (such as Trinity Western University and Tyndale University), but that diverge from most universities: graduates told Xtra that Redeemer students can’t have sex or drink at all; Jason said the student code of his time forbade students from “practising homosexuality.” Screenshots of school policy obtained by Xtra connected “conflict between [a person’s] biological/genetic sex and gender identity” to humanity’s “fall into sin.” (These screenshots could not be confirmed, as a Redeemer spokesperson said that school policies were internal documents and declined to share them with Xtra). 

During orientation, Jason says he was given a copy of the student code of conduct detailing these policies. Jason wrote that his RA “was persistent and insistent” that he sign off on them—despite his discomfort. A Redeemer spokesperson said that the school “does not have a community covenant or contract” for students; rather, they are asked to “review and acknowledge the purpose and mission of the university.”

When he eventually handed his RA the document with his signature, he jokingly asked what would happen if he came out as gay. His RA told him that would be a bad idea: the year before, a woman who went on a date with another woman had been expelled, he recalls. 

Although Jason hadn’t been out at the time, he says he experienced Redeemer’s social scene as a kind of “minefield,” one in which he could never feel certain that his fellow students wouldn’t report him for behaviour that violated the student handbook. 

“If one of these students heard of, overheard, or even in some cases suspected ‘un-Christian behaviour,’ they would beeline to Campus Life to report it,” Jason wrote in the open letter. “To the student doing the reporting, they aren’t doing anything wrong. In fact, in their opinion, they’re helping to save your soul by getting you help. Nevermind that the ‘help’ often results in shame, discipline or even expulsion.”

Over ten years after Jason first enrolled at Redeemer, other graduates described a culture that was more or less unchanged. A 2019 graduate who wanted to remain anonymous said that she needed to sign off agreeing to “act like a true Christian” and felt like there was a “culture of reporting people.” 

“It would be in the teachings—if you’re queer, it’s a sin. If you’re accepting, it’s not ‘the true church,’” she says. “People would be judgmental or spread rumours if they thought you were gay.”

Schultz described experiences that paralleled both Jason’s and the 2019 graduate’s. Like them, Schultz reported needing to sign a document agreeing to queerphobic policies; like them, too, Schultz encountered open homophobia at Redeemer. 

“Anything LGBTQ2S+ is sinful,” Schultz says. “Someone once came up to me and said, ‘If Jesus met a gay person, he’d say they were a sinner.’”

Schultz also described a culture of surveillance at Redeemer, and explained that it stemmed from the university’s “purity culture.” The term, which Schultz studied after leaving Redeemer, describes the culture surrounding the idea that Christian sex exists only between a married man and woman.

“In the day-to-day, when you have a culture of purity culture, you have a whole bunch of adolescents trying to maintain this sense of ‘purity,’” Schultz says. “That leads to a culture where individuals are both policing themselves and policing each other according to what they perceive as God’s will—which was certainly the case at Redeemer. 

“And all this is based in the idea that God created people as men and women. So, if you are out either as trans or non-binary, then there’s a reason for people to outwardly police you and tell you you’re living against God’s will.”

Schultz said that Redeemer’s culture was demoralizing on a personal level. “If you were seen as flirting with a man, you’d get called out. If you were wearing something too low-cut, you’d be called out. By the end of my degree, I was mostly hiding in my room—I was living with Christians. I was so worried about being called out. I didn’t know who I was, or what to say. I was in a really suicidal place.”

Accounts from both current and former students in The Rainbow Report echo the graduates’ experiences. Like Jason, one former student writing in the report described themself as “isolated” during their time at Redeemer. Like Schultz, another called his time at Redeemer “one of the darkest points in my life.” Similar to all the graduates, multiple writers recalled needing to sign a contract that barred them from same-sex intimacy; one writer recalled feeling “astonished” that they were “required to essentially sign over my sexual rights” to live on campus. 

Many of these writers noted that their time at Redeemer affected them long after graduation. Some left faith communities entirely; others stayed in the closet. Many former students expressed deep concern for the current LGBTQ2S+ students at Redeemer. As one one former student said:

“I have no doubts that there are still students who, like me, come from very sheltered theological monocultures,” the former student said. “The queer and trans folks among them will be struggling with the same internalized homophobia and transphobia. They are isolated, depressed and at risk of self-harm. For their sake, I implore you to consider the impacts that policies on sexuality and gender will have. 

“A queer-affirming policy has the potential to quite literally save lives.”

Moving forward

On Dec. 11, Genesis—the unsanctioned LGBTQ2S+ group Noble helped found—published a statement on Instagram saying that it had been “meeting with university administration over the last two weeks, seeking to address challenges faced by the LGBTQ2S+ community on Redeemer’s campus.” 

Two days later, Redeemer published a post on its website saying that it would be fast-tracking current mental health initiatives and establishing a mental health task force to “review the best ways to meet the growing need for mental health services.” It said that it would receive input from queer, BIPOC and international students. It did not mention Genesis.

The weeks since Noble’s death saw both the Redeemer community and the Ancaster community come together to celebrate their life. Last weekend, a celebration of Bekett’s life that Markettos organized was filled both with people who knew Bekett and with people from various churches who came to offer support—including those from the Reformed Church. Markettos gave a eulogy, another friend said a prayer and Noble’s sister gave a speech. At the end, Markettos passed around a petition to put Noble’s name on a bench outside the Reach Out Centre for Kids, a youth mental health centre in Burlington. 

“The community has, in general, been outraged but supportive. People have been coming together,” Markettos says. “I’ve met so many loving, caring, beautiful people I’ll call friends. I often can’t answer their questions—they want to do something concrete to help. Genesis did say that they wanted donations to be directed toward Speqtrum [an LGBTQ2S+ youth program in Ontario].”

A similar crowd, too, gathered in front of Hamilton City Hall this Sunday for a vigil, where people held rainbow flags, cried and sang. On social media, people have continued to implore the university to acknowledge the unique struggles of LGBTQ2S+ people on campus. Louter says that the school needed to seriously reckon with its treatment of LGBTQ2S+ students.

“The next period of change—if change is coming—is going to be really hard,” Louter says. “It’s going to take hard work—not window dressing, not another PR statement, not another policy wiggle—it’s going to take hard work. Will they do it? That remains to be seen.”

The Canada Suicide Prevention Service can be reached at 1-833-456-4566 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year. It can also be reached online at www.crisisservicescanada.ca. 

Jackie Richardson is a freelance writer based in Western New York. She has worked at The Los Angeles Review of Books, The Daily Hampshire Gazette, and The Sophian.

Read More About:
Identity, Power, Feature, Trans, Canada, Education

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