LGBT Christian College Students Fight For a Voice
As more students come out at evangelical colleges, administrators are cracking down on campus groups and faculty who give them support. A new advocacy group wants to change that.
This week, while international LGBT rights advocates continue to spotlight repressive anti-gay policies and violence in Russia, some are focusing their protests closer to home.
Friday morning in Los Angeles, a new LGBT support coalition for Christian college students and alumni, Safety Net, is launching publicly with a prayer vigil protest of a meeting of hundreds of Christian college administrators. The Council for Christian Colleges & Universities (CCCU), representing 119 U.S. evangelical and fundamentalist higher education institutions and 55 international affiliates, is holding its quadrennial conference in LA, this year focused on the theme of “Engaged Community.” But in the past four years, the community around Christian colleges is starting to change in significant ways, growing to include a number of public and private groups for gay and transgender students and alumni. Carrying a banner for Safety Net and wearing college sweatshirts from schools like Wheaton College, Biola University and Fuller Theological Seminary, around 25 alumni and former faculty will gather to declare that “we’re part of this community, too.”
Safety Net is launching as an umbrella coalition for LGBT groups at 50 Christian colleges, including organizations like BJUnity (for Bob Jones University alumni and students), OneWheaton, OneGeorgeFox (George Fox University), and Biola Queer Underground. Most of the alumni groups are public, but around a third of the groups, mostly representing current students, are “underground,” not disclosing members’ identity for fear of expulsion, losing financial aid or students’ families cutting them off.
Students at conservative Christian colleges, explained Safety Net board member Paul Southwick, a 30-year-old lawyer from Portland, Oregon, and cofounder of OneGeorgeFox, don’t just face the standard harassment students at secular schools encounter, but also a set of biblical teachings that “demonize” them, an absence of school policies to protect them, and often small, rural campuses where they can feel profoundly isolated.
Jeffrey Hoffman, 43, another Safety Net board member and a professional church organist, is founding executive director of BJUnity, the unlikely LGBT community of a school nicknamed the “Fortress of Fundamentalism” and which Hoffman said is “probably one of the most oppressive places for LGBT people” in the country. Hoffman grew up within the extended community of Bob Jones feeder schools, attending the university’s affiliated K-12 Academy and enrolling in BJU before health problems forced him to withdraw. During his recovery, he grappled with coming out of the closet, and realized “there was no one safe to talk to.” In late 2011, he co-founded BJUnity with other alumni from the school who had come to realize they weren’t as alone as they’d felt.
“We realized that all of us had come to terms with our sexual orientation in isolation and fear, in many cases, of being disowned or persecuted or punished by our families,” he said. “And then we started hearing rumors about young people who had killed themselves a year or two prior, and we started talking.” They started by forming secret Facebook support groups, and quietly assembled a board of directors before launching publicly during New York City’s 2012 Pride Week. Today, he says, BJUnity has helped numerous people in the school’s community come to terms with their sexuality and come out to their families, as well as helping two transwomen transition to their correct gender. They work mostly with alumni, but from time to time, engage in delicate conversations with people still at Bob Jones, which Hoffman said is “not a safe environment.”
But the fortress of fundamentalism isn’t alone. Safety Net has worked with numerous students who were expelled from schools for embracing LGBT identities—sometimes regardless of whether they’d actually had a same-sex relationship. Even at comparatively liberal Christian schools, expression of LGBT identity is strictly monitored. At nine CCCU institutions, Paul Southwick explained, LGBT groups have attempted to gain official school “club status,” and been denied. While club status is determined by individual schools, CCCU schools generally prohibit same-sex relationships and behavior. Southwick said he has heard privately from several CCCU college administrators that the standard approach is that if LGBT groups are allowed, they must be limited to discussion or support groups only—no advocacy—and they must agree to an unusual degree of oversight from school officials, significantly chilling student participation.
After conducting numerous interviews with Christian college LGBT students, Southwick tracked a number of expulsions of LGBT students from Christian schools during the mid-2000s. As recently as 2011, one trans student accepted to California Baptist University’s nursing program (whom Southwick is now representing in a civil suit), had her acceptance rescinded for “fraud” because she’d identified as female on her application.
There seem to be fewer student expulsions these days, perhaps due to schools’ fears of losing accreditation and state support. But student fear remains high, and schools seem to be responding to LGBT students’ activism with a crackdown on faculty members who support them.
Among the casualties is Beth Stuart, a former faculty member at Southern Wesleyan University in South Carolina, who was fired after she refused to withdraw support for SWUnity, for which she was the faculty sponsor. And at Azusa Pacific University in California, professor Adam Ackley, a transman who previously chaired the school’s theology and philosophy department, was terminated after he transitioned, although he says he was living in compliance with the school’s position statement on human sexuality and living chastely outside of marriage.
“It does seem to me a shift may be happening in some CCCU universities at least to dismiss faculty and perhaps staff who simply seek unity and hospitality toward LGBTQ Christians,” Ackley said.
But the same doesn’t seem to be true of the student bodies at these schools, Southwick said, as many young students at Christian schools show strong support for LGBT peers who come out. Ackley, who will speak at Friday’s demonstration, said that during his transition he experienced unconditional love from his students, who he says were following in the footsteps of the theologians they’d studied. It’s a trend that’s reflected nationally in the growing support among young evangelicals for gay rights and marriage equality.
“The problem with Christian colleges, which is often true of larger denominations as well,” Southwick said, “is that the folks at the top tend to be of a different generation where they have been less exposed to gay people in their own lives. Whereas the younger evangelicals aren’t any less evangelical, but have grown up knowing gay people. For them the issue is much more human than it is biblical.”
After the demonstration Friday, which will include a prayer and blessing for CCCU administrators and the students at their schools, Safety Net members will meet with representatives from three of the 119 U.S. schools that make up the Council—the only three that responded to their invitations to “engage community”—to urge them to create more affirming campus policies. (CCCU did not respond to email and phone requests for comment.)
It may take 10 or 15 years, Southwick said, but he thinks that Christian higher education is at a turning point. “Society has already answered the LGBT question with an affirming response,” he says. It’s time now, he said, for conservative Christians to do the same.
“There’s always going to be gay students born into evangelical families. They’re going to want to get married, and they’re going to want to have families. Christian colleges are going to be in a culture in which they have to decide whether or not they are going to maintain discriminatory policies or are they going to allow themselves to humbly accept a new view of human sexuality.”