Gay Erskine College Athlete Speaks Out Against School's Sexuality Statement

Jodie Valade@@JodieValadeSpecial to Bleacher ReportMay 21, 2015

Photo by Maddy Jones

DUE WEST, S.C. — A year ago, Erskine College junior Juan Varona and his volleyball teammate Andrew Davis were the subject of a story on Outsports.com that explained how the two gay players had been accepted at the rural, conservative South Carolina school.

Then, on Feb. 20, Erskine College issued a “Statement on Human Sexuality,” publicly condemning same-sex relationships as “sinful.”

Many did not think it was a coincidence that the school of about 600 students, founded by the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church, would craft such a statement a year after Varona, a native of Toa Baja, Puerto Rico, and Davis spoke openly about their sexuality and the school’s acceptance of them.

As this article suggests, there was pressure on the school at the time to clarify its stance on homosexuality.

A week after issuing its statement, Erskine College released “context” in which it denied the original statement was aimed at any students in particular, that the school’s stance on sexuality was not intended to be a policy, and that it does not ban any students from attending the school.

In the aftermath of those two statements, Varona has been outspoken in expressing his dismay that Erskine would adopt such a stance—all while still professing his affection for the school.

Varona, who has decided to transfer this fall to King University in Bristol, Tennessee, talked to Bleacher Report to explain in his own words what this experience has been like for him.

Juan Varona on the Erskine College campus in Due West, S.C.
Juan Varona on the Erskine College campus in Due West, S.C.Photo by Maddy Jones

I didn’t know anything about Erskine College before I was recruited to play volleyball here. I was playing for a club team in Puerto Rico, and we traveled to Daytona Beach to qualify for nationals when the coach saw me and a teammate playing, and he recruited us.

I didn’t even know how to pronounce it. I thought it was Ers-kine. [It’s “Ers-kin.”] A lot of people think that.

We came on a visit to Due West, and I liked it. We took some classes, and everybody was really friendly. It was like a close, family environment. I know everyone here; everyone knows me. I knew that every year, 100 freshmen were going to come in, and I’m going to know all of them. I like that about this place.

I also knew it was a conservative, religious school, but on my visit, they told me [my being gay] wasn’t a big deal. The students who aren’t athletes are called “Erskinites,” and they told me a lot of people here aren’t that religious. It’s not like all the athletes are diehard Christians. It’s a normal school, but you have to take Bible classes.

There are a few people who will come up to you and say, “We’re praying for you,” but they’re in the minority. I was in a Christian school in Puerto Rico until ninth grade, and my family is very involved in the Christian church back home, so I didn’t think it was a big deal anyway. It’s nothing I was unfamiliar with.

I don’t go around telling people I’m gay. But when I visited here, I knew it was a Christian school and was a little afraid. First of all, Erskine is not just a Christian school; it’s a Christian school in the South. But I still told myself that if someone asks me, I’m not going to deny it. At the same time, I’m not going to introduce myself by saying, “Hey! I’m gay! Nice to meet you!” So, that’s how I came here, and the coach never really asked me. To me, it doesn’t matter. And to him, I guess it didn’t matter either.

But it’s a close school, so if you tell a few people something, the next day, everybody knows. So, I came out at a party in fall quarter of my freshman year. Someone asked me if I was gay, and I just said, “Yeah.” No one really cared. There were maybe one or two people who tried to give me a hard time with it, but that went away quickly.

I’m not even sure how the story with Outsports.com came about, but Drew [Andrew Davis] told me he was talking to this reporter, and they wanted to do a story about both of us. I told him I’d talk to him, too; I didn't mind.

No one really said much when the original story came out. A lot of people were really supportive. My coach got a little scared because in the article it says he knew about it, and he was worried it meant he was embracing homosexuality at a Christian school. But I didn’t think it was a big deal; I thought it was good. It seems like that’s an image we want Erskine to have—that this is a loving place.

But, then, a little more than a month ago, an alum, who’s gay, messaged me on Facebook. He said, “What is Erskine doing? Are they trying to be like Bob Jones University?” I didn’t know what he was talking about. He showed me the statement, part of which read:

We believe the Bible teaches that all sexual activity outside the covenant of marriage is sinful and therefore ultimately destructive to the parties involved. As a Christian academic community, and in light of our institutional mission, members of the Erskine community are expected to follow the teachings of scripture concerning matters of human sexuality and institutional decisions will be made in light of this position.

It didn’t click immediately that the statement was because of me and Drew. But then I started thinking more that it’s really interesting timing that it came out a year after our article. The administration says it was in the works for two to three years. But if you read it, if you’re paying someone to write that for two years, you’d fire them. A college student can write a better paper in a week.

They all deny it’s aimed at me. Of course they do. But I feel like it is. At least I think it was caused by our article, because there’s no need to release that kind of statement. Who would question Erskine’s stance on religion and their views on sexuality if not for the article? I don’t think the board of trustees was happy with that article in Outsports.com, but they don’t understand what Erskine is like now. They don’t know about the college. I feel like they’re just a bunch of old guys who don’t understand what life is like here now.

I don’t see a conflict between religion and homosexuality. I feel like we should all be accepted. If you want to see it as a sin, everybody sins in different ways. I feel like there are greater sins, and those are the Ten Commandments. If there are some sins that carry more weight, it’s those 10 sins. And sexuality isn’t anywhere in there.

Photo by Maddy Jones

I had quit the volleyball team for personal reasons about two weeks before Erskine issued its statement, and I was thinking of staying and finishing my degrees in business and Spanish. I love this school, and I loved this team. I always told people that if you put Erskine up against Stanford, Erskine is better. But after seeing this statement, I can’t really support Erskine and get behind that. If I had been on the team, I probably would have quit immediately.

I’m transferring to King University, which is in the same conference (Conference Carolinas). I’ll sit out one year and use my fifth year in college for my final year of eligibility. One of the players on the team already reached out and told me that my being gay isn't going to be a big deal. I even asked the coach. They have inclusive, anti-discrimination policies there. It’s not going to be an issue, and I’ve never had a problem with being accepted anyway. I feel like I’m a really nice guy. To me, as long as you’re a good person and you’re nice and honest, you’re not bringing drama to places; I should be fine anywhere.

I know that when I come back to play against Erskine, it will be awkward. It’ll be emotional, too, coming to Due West, because I really like this place, and I know a lot of people.

I just felt like it was an unnecessary thing for Erskine to do. There was no reason they would do it if our article hadn’t come out last year. Now they’re denying it all for public image. But I feel like that’s the only reason they did it.

I’m happy that I could be a voice to speak out against this. I’m happy that all this attention has been focused on Erskine. If it wouldn’t have gotten all this attention, I don’t think they would have issued the clarification.

They’ve said that nothing will change, that Erskine will continue to be a loving and accepting place. Now, nothing is in writing saying that, and I can only hope that they will keep their word.