Twenty-four-year-old Eliel Cruz got kinda famous on the internet earlier this year when his Christian college refused to let him and his friends sell cupcakes for homeless LGBT youth because they said it didn't sync with the university's "mission." It wasn't the first time that Cruz -- who is both Christian and openly bisexual -- butted heads with his school over their policies surrounding LGBT issues.
Cruz graduated from the Seventh-Day Adventist Church's Michigan-based flagship school, Andrews University, in May. After being expelled from his Christian high school for coming out, he spent his time at Andrews not only figuring out how to thrive on campus, but also fighting (successfully!) to make his university -- and Christian universities across the country -- more LGBT-friendly.
MTV News sat down with Cruz to hear his story.
Out And Proud...Mostly
Though some Seventh Day Adventists are accepting of LGBT people, the official stance of the church is that “homosexuality is a manifestation of the disturbance and brokenness in human inclinations and relations caused by the entrance of sin into the world."
Cruz told MTV News that he grew up in the Seventh-Day Adventist faith and went to Christian schools his whole life -- until he got expelled for coming out.
"I came out to my parents when I was only 14," Cruz said. "I'm lucky...I've always had a supportive family. At the time they said, 'I don't agree with you but I love you,' and now, years later, they're fully affirming theologically, too."
Unfortunately, his Seventh-Day Adventist high school in Georgia didn't share his parents' accepting attitudes, and when he came out at school, he was asked to leave.
"A lot of Christian academies expel LGBT students," he said, "I guess it's not too surprising in that sense."
Cruz finished high school by homeschooling, and when he enrolled at Andrews University, he resolved to keep his sexual orientation a secret from school administrators out of fear that he'd be expelled again.
The Importance Of Finding Your People
"It's so helpful to know that there's another friendly face on your campus," Cruz said "...even if they're not out, it means so much to know that you're not alone, and that there's someone who understands you."
Being closeted to the administration didn't stop Cruz from wanting to build a support network with other LGBT students on campus, so he helped found AULL4One, (The "AU" is for Andrews University) an unofficial Gay-Straight Alliance (GSA) that created a safe space for LGBT students and their allies to meet off campus. They had to meet off campus and remain "unofficial" because the school wouldn't allow them to become a formal club.
"We found a great faculty member, who opened up her home to let us meet there twice a month," Cruz told MTV News. "It was a safe space to talk about our sexual orientation and our faith, and reconciling that -- or not reconciling it -- having a place for students to safely talk about those things was something that just wasn't formerly available at our campus."
Eliel Cruz hugs another AULL4One member at the first-ever formal campus discussion on LGBT issues
Discovering The Dangers Of The Closet
That sense of community helped to keep him afloat, but eventually, not being out to the school's administration presented some serious problems.
"I had a situation where someone was threatening my life," Cruz recalled, "and it had to do with a same-sex relationship I'd had in the past. I was worried about my safety, but I didn’t feel like I could go to my school about it. Based on my past experiences, I really thought I might get expelled if I did. I didn't know what to do."
AULL4One members together on campus
Eventually, Cruz was so concerned that he did go to the school's administration about the threats. They helped to deescalate the situation and make sure he was safe, and also assured him that he wouldn't get in any trouble or be expelled for coming out to them.
"I still didn't really trust them, though," he said. "And that made me realize that there must be so many LGBT students at Christian universities dealing with Lord-knows-what with absolutely no support system in place."
It weighed so heavily on his mind that Cruz decided to take action. He wrote a letter to the Dean of Student Life pointing out that there was a hole in the student handbook when it came to protections for LGBT students.
"I said, 'You need to make sure there's protection for us under the non-harassment and non-discrimination policies just like there is for everyone else.' The following year, they added those, and as far as I know, it was the first time any Adventist university put protections for LGBT students into their non-discrimination policy."
This Is A Movement, Not A Moment
Once he saw that his actions had the power to make things better for other students, too, Cruz decided he wanted to help LGBT students at all Adventist schools -- not just his own. He founded the Intercollegiate Adventist GSA Coalition (IAGC), a registered 501(c)3 nonprofit organization that strives to make Seventh-day Adventist educational institutions more LGBT-friendly.
IAGC helps to establish scholarship programs for LGBT students doing advocacy work, helps universities establish their own unofficial GSAs (since official LGBT student groups aren't allowed), and helps Adventist universities nationwide create policies that will create safer environments for LGBT students.
"Some of our LGBT students had been kicked out of their homes," Cruz said. "And their schools didn’t really have a support system for gay kids who were kicked out, so IAGC helped set up ways to help them get back on their feet, and find resources for things like suicide prevention."
Things were better. A lot better. But that didn't mean that life was suddenly easy for LGBT students on campus.
Why Stay Where You're Not Really Welcome?
"I had people calling the school and trying to get me expelled," Cruz said.
When asked why he still wanted to stay at Andrews, Cruz responded, "I'm a Christian. I wanted to be in that environment. But I also saw a need. I did it not just for myself, but for students after me. Like I said, I have a really amazing family, so I knew I had that to fall back on, and I wanted to help create a safer space for others who might not have that."
Cruz pointed out that not all students are able to leave if things get hostile on campus. They may have parents who will only pay for Christian school, or they may not be out to their families, which would make them feel like they couldn't say, "I don't feel safe being at a Christian school."
"I think I also just wanted to get a degree with Andrews University’s name on it," he said, laughing. "They won't officially recognize any of my accomplishments just because of the topics I'm speaking and writing about. I wanted to be able to say, ‘I’m an Andrews University graduate, I was resilient, I made it through the wilderness, and now I’m going to continue working in the LGBT community. I wanted to show that their graduates are fighting for equality."
Advice To LGBT Students At Christian Universities
Cruz encouraged LGBT students at Christian universities to touch base with Safety Net, a nonprofit that helps bridge connections between LGBTQ+ students, alumni, faculty, and staff at Christian colleges. They can help you find out if there's an unofficial GSA associated with your school.
"There may be a group that you don’t know about at your school because it’s unofficial and sort of underground," Cruz said. "A lot of times you’ll be surprised to find that there actually is a group for your campus already."
And if there isn't? Cruz suggested that if it feels safe, you can consider creating your own.
"Depending on where you’re at personally, if you’re able to take some initiative, start a group -- there are definitely going to be more people like you," he said.
"You could meet a coffee shop, it can be through word of mouth, it can just be three or four people -- you don’t even have to talk about sexuality, but just being together, and having that community, can help you build resilience against some of the negative messages you might hear on campus."
Cruz also encouraged students who feel safe doing so to advocate for better policies toward LGBT students at their own schools.
"Talk to your dean of student life," he said. "Especially after this marriage equality ruling, a lot of these schools are kind of scared, to be honest, and soon they'll be trying to find ways to be more inclusive of their students. If you are at a place where you can take that on, work with your school to make your school a better place not just for yourself, but for other students who don’t have a voice."