Convictions and consequences
The backstory of Isabella Chow’s stand for Biblical sexuality before the UC Berkeley student senate
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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.
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.”
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