WTF is Going On in Tauranga?
Chants of "Kill the gays" and a building gutted by fire. Suicide attempts and a school that speaks of God and love. What is happening in this New Zealand town?
I wrote a version of this newsletter yesterday (a small update on New Zealand’s Bethlehem College) but didn’t send it out — simply putting it online on Webworm.co.
My thinking was that Webworm has readers all over the world, and this story update was simply too small and specific.
But then some things happened.
For one thing, students who protested at Bethlehem College were allegedly subjected to chants of “Kill the gays”. Then the original pride advocate who’d raised concerns about the college had emails sent to his work, claiming “he has no issues with pedophiles”:
Next, a youth centre for LGBTQI+ youth in Tauranga was gutted by fire in a “suspicious blaze”:
Then yesterday, journalist Annemarie Quill wrote about a transgender student at Bethlehem College who’d attempted to commit suicide after being told “God doesn’t make mistakes”. This echoed earlier comments from former Bethlehem College student, Katerina Clark:
Clark, now 31, says she “was terrified” of coming out as students were told that “gay people go to hell”. She was also bullied, which led to depression, self-harm and a suicide attempt.
Clark welcomes the petition and says that remembering how she was treated at school is “triggering”.
“It takes me back to how I felt in my late teens, this sense of overwhelming confusion and this almost unbalanced ideology of what I think is right and wrong can really mess with your mind,” says Clark.
Basically, I was left going “What the fuck is going on in Tauranga” — a place I once lived, and loved.
If you want to get in touch with me about anything in this story, in confidence, I am: firstname.lastname@example.org.
These last stories about suicide attempts all tied in with what I’d written about earlier in the week (a student had committed suicide when I attended the school in the 90s), and the background noise the school’s “Statement of Belief”, gently humming in everything the school did.
Today’s newsletter is just another bit of the puzzle — a leaked document I received containing the school’s specific thoughts on gender. Spoiler alert: They’re probably exactly what you expect.
The documents show what the school’s leadership, teachers, and board are expected to believe — keeping in mind this isn’t a private school. No, it’s State-integrated — meaning it receives taxpayer money to do its thing. To push its beliefs.
And after reading some comments from Webworm readers not in New Zealand, I realised this story is much bigger than Bethlehem College.
Because so many religious institutions use documents like this in order to govern people’s lives.
Paraphrasing words from RNZ’s latest Mediawatch episode — it forces people to suppress their true selves, augmenting what they would ordinarily believe or do, all in the name of a religious document created by — inevitably — some men.
Bethlehem College’s take on gender
Earlier this week, Webworm reported that Tauranga’s Bethlehem College had snuck an extra clause into its “Statement of Belief”, in regards to what constituted a proper marriage.
The Ministry of Education wasn’t particularly happy the school had done this, telling Webworm:
“We are actively seeking a response from both Boards, which we understand are meeting this month.
If the school does not remove Point 13 the Ministry can consider a formal intervention.”
With that in mind — I guess it should come as no surprise the State-integrated college also has fairly strong views on gender.
Webworm has obtained an internal document from Bethlehem College titled “Summary of Beliefs Relating to Gender As a School of Special Character”.
The document is dated November 2020, with a note that it is to be reviewed “annually or as required”. It references the Deed of Integration — which is quite funny considering none of this was in the Deed of Integration.
This is the whole document — and I will break it down afterwards, as it’s hard to read.
“Summary of Beliefs” obtained by Webworm
In summary, Bethlehem College lays out some fairly specific ideas, boiling down to this:
“Apart from intersex individuals, the biological sex of a person is determined at conception to be male or female and their gender identity should align with their biological sex.
Through the embryonic and foetal states of development to maturity, each of the estimated 37 trillion cells in the body received either XX or XY chromosomes which help programme the body to be biologically male or female.”
The document goes on to rally against hormone treatment, before stating a series of things (including pronoun use) that “are to be maintained by the College and its staff and adhered to by students, according to their biological sex.”
This point of view is hardly a surprise, but like their views on marriage — I have very little doubt it would cause certain students distress. Again, yesterday’s Stuff article: “School told trans student: ‘God doesn't make mistakes’ - then they tried to kill themselves.”
Webworm sent the leaked document to the The Ministry of Education, who replied:
“Under s127 of the Education and Training Act 2020 school boards are required to be inclusive of, and cater for, students with differing needs.
We are committed to supporting schools and kura to provide a safe and inclusive learning environment that promotes student wellbeing and positive outcomes.
This document will be a part of our ongoing discussions with the school to ensure it is meeting its legal obligations under the Education and Training Act.”
Webworm then reached out to Bethlehem College for comment, asking 10 very specific questions — including whether it was going to comply with the Ministry of Education:
1) Do you intend to remove clause (13) in regards to marriage, as instructed by the Ministry of Education?
2) If so, when?
3) Do you intend to remove your statement about biological sex and gender as per the document viewed by Webworm?
4) If so, when?
5) Are you aware that as an Integrated school you are “required to create safe and inclusive environments, free from discrimination, for all children and young people”?
6) How are you creating an inclusive environment if you are defining marriage as only between a man and a woman, when this is very much not the case in New Zealand law? 7) How are you creating an inclusive environment if children under your care do not identify with their biological sex?
8) What do you as a school plan to do in order to address these irregularities?
9) Are you aware of accusations made online about student’s treatment at the school? Including the statements documented in this Webworm article?
10) What does Bethlehem College plan to do in addressing these issues?
The school (in true Arise megachurch style) chose to largely ignore those questions, responding with a generic press release.
I’ve uploaded their attached PDF here for you to read. It begins by justifying the existence of the document:
A working document created by Bethlehem College Limited, the school’s proprietor, to guide the assessment of Bethlehem College’s special character obligations around gender has been leaked to the media.
Before going on to say how happy everyone is:
It’s why so many parents choose to send their children to the school, as our Christian character directly supports the wellbeing of our students.
As our most recent Education Review Office report notes: ‘The college’s special Christian character permeates all aspects of college life and contributes to a strong sense of wellbeing and belonging for students.’
While none of my questions are answered directly, the school says “we’ve been wrestling with questions around how to provide the greatest level of care and protection possible for students.”
It then goes into a variety of classic anti-trans talking points that I am not going to repeat here, before going into that tired argument of “We’re just expressing our beliefs! You do you, don’t worry!”
“We acknowledge that these are sensitive issues and we respect the fact that other people will think differently about them.
Our message to those people is that our intention is certainly not to be hurtful. We believe God loves them and desires only the absolute best for them.
We simply ask them to respect our beliefs, just as we respect theirs.”
One wonders when Bethlehem College may start thinking about respecting students who find themselves in a very scary, lonely place. You know, the marginalised people.
The sorts of people a guy born in a different Bethlehem a few millennia ago might be concerned about.
To me, these “Statements of Belief” can be so insidious. We saw another example of this in the other big “religion” story in New Zealand this week — John Campbell’s deep dive into the Gloriavale sect.
No — Bethlehem College is no Gloriavale, I am not saying that — but it’s an example of another institution using a document to insert beliefs that can be incredibly damaging.
Campbell talked to a former Gloriavale couple who spoke about the doctrine they’d been handed down, dictating that when your husband asked for sex, you could not refuse. It was surreal seeing a man on camera clocking that he’d been committing marital rape. That the cause of his wife’s trauma was him.
I urge you to watch or read that piece: How Gloriavale Stole the Right to Say No.
I have a pet theory that those with Evangelical and Pentecostal worldviews don’t really understand people in the LGBTQI+ community as real people. To the leaders in these institutions, they might as well be talking about Shrek, or a bunch of goblins or Ewoks.
None of them are real — which is why they’re so easy to dismiss, using cherry-picked Bible passages shouted by male leaders for generations.
I know this is true, because it’s exactly how I used to think.
And so it goes on.
I wanted to give the last word to a writer I really admire, A.J Hendry of When Lambs Are Silent.
He did a series of tweets in response to some of my writing, which really gets it:
“Over the years I’ve sat with rangatahi who have been deeply hurt, psychologically harmed and traumatised by versions of the Christian Faith which have no room for true acceptance of #LGBTQ peoples.
In a recent Webworm, he commented that may Christians don’t truly understand LGBTQ people as real people.
He sadly hit the nail on the head.
When I was a kid, everything I learnt about our Rainbow whānau came from pastors and teachers who spoke about them based on their own interpretation of one or two verses in the scriptures.
I did not know any queer people, and “love the sinner, hate the sin” seemed like the most progressive and compassionate and loving phrase a Christian could say. And yet, when I finally began learning from and listening too my LGBTQ I learnt how harmful, how hurtful, that phrase and the posture and theology that comes with it really is.
I’ve sat with rangatahi who suffer deep psychological harm from pastors and Christian leaders who — from a genuine place of love — have taught their young queer kids that they love them, and also that they will burn in hell if they embrace their sexuality.
Regardless of where we sit politically or theologically, we have to acknowledge that this stuff is really hurting people, real people.
Dear Christians, we are not being persecuted here. If anything we are being held accountable for the harmful fruit of the theology we hold. The harm of this interpretation within our faith is well documented and testified to.
As followers of Jesus, we have to ask ourselves... what is more important? Holding on to our traditions, or caring for and protecting some of our most vulnerable whānau within our communities? Our theology is hurting people, something in both our theology and how we hold it needs to change.
At the end of the day, Jesus is with those who suffer, the poor, the marginalised, the oppressed.
Jesus weeps with our queer whānau, Jesus is on the side of those who have been oppressed and excluded.
Can we confidently say we are standing with him?”
I had a long walk yesterday, mulling all of this over.
I listened to the latest episode of In The Shift — “Trauma, Red Flags, and Recovery” — in which a therapist discusses religious trauma, sharing reflections on institutional and religious gaslighting.
I cried a few times.
Update: Webworm reader Fionnaigh (who wrote this helpful guide for those recovering from religious trauma, around when I was writing about Arise megachurch) — has written some advice below:
LGBTIQ+ students at Bethlehem College, and their parents/whānau/friends, might find the Inside Out guide “Legal Rights at School” useful.
In addition, they can contact the Human Rights Commission for advice and support. I went to a hui with the HRC yesterday for survivors of conversion practices, and it was very clear that they are trying to centre survivors and ensure their process are meeting our needs. If people make a complaint to the HRC and it doesn’t turn out to meet the criteria of that law, they still want to help people find support and resources, and to work with organisations to do better.
If there are any adults at Bethlehem that have any awareness that the situation needs to change, Inside Out have a bunch of other helpful resources to support schools, including one specifically for Christian Schools.