Homosexuality might be the most controversial topic in the U. S. today. It becomes extra controversial when combined with the Christian faith, and I recently dove headfirst into the tension by writing a news story for Christianity Today called “Hope for the Gay Undergrad.” The article provides a glimpse into what’s currently being done to accommodate same-sex attracted students on Christian college campuses nationwide. It was published in the January/February print edition of CT, and was the #1 most-viewed article on CT's website last week (if you haven’t read it, please do – and let me know what you think of it in the comments below).
The reader statistics on my article didn't surprise me, as the topic is a hot one - any story involving religion AND sexuality is sure to peak most readers' interest. For students enrolled in conservative Christian colleges with behavioral codes and covenants forbidding all “sexually immoral activity” which includes sex outside of marriage, it’s especially relevant. Almost every student knows someone in their family or at least in their extended circle of friends who is gay or same-sex attracted, and yet, it’s not often talked about at their conservative colleges – which presents a problem.
Based on my reporting and research, including conversations with sexual psychologists, current Christian college students, members of conservative Christian college administrations, pastors, and authors, here are three things the conservative evangelical community MUST do to provide hope for students who identify as same-sex attracted:
1) Acknowledge that LGBT individuals exist inside the walls of churches and on Christian college campuses.
LGBT and same-sex attracted students on Christian college campuses often feel “invisible” because of their inability to be honest about their attractions. Here are some direct quotes from students I’ve talked to in the past 12 months:
“When I enrolled as a freshman, I would never have said I was gay . . . I wanted to keep it quiet for fear of my guy friends being freaked out by me. You hear gay jokes around campus and you're afraid if you come out people will look at you differently."
–“Jordan,” author of "gaysubtlety" blog and 2012 Wheaton College graduate
"Sex in general was not often talked about in my church or family, let alone homosexuality, so I hid it for as long as possible."
–Brent Persun, openly gay 2011 Cedarville University graduate
“When I became a Christian at 17, I tucked that part of me away—I ignored it.”
–current same-sex attracted Wheaton College student
These quotes are proof the conservative evangelical community makes those experiencing same-sex attraction feel it’s not okay to be completely honest about who they are. Statistics show that anywhere from 1.7 to 10 percent of the American population identifies as LGBTQ or same-sex attracted, but students experiencing same-sex attraction on a small, private Christian college campus where it’s never discussed often feel they have to "ignore" their feelings and become withdrawn, depressed, and conflicted.
2) Provide a safe space for same-sex attracted students to meet on a regular basis.
Several students have committed suicide as a result of the “shame” and “oppressive silence” they feel surrounding their same-sex attractions. According to Andrew Marin, founder of the Marin Foundation, a Chicago-based outreach ministry that hopes to build bridges between the Christian church and the LGBT community, dialogue is the answer—a balance between small-group meetings and campus-wide forums for dialogue (including guest speakers from a variety of theological backgrounds) is a healthy mix, and the Marin Foundation offers Bible-based curriculum and conversation guides on their website.
As summarized in my CT article, Seattle Pacific University started a successful same-sex attracted discussion group on their campus that hosts both small group discussions and campus-wide events hosting guest speakers who address a variety of topics surrounding sexual identity; Wheaton College regularly hosts a same-sex attracted small group with the dean of student care, and occasionally hosts guest speakers and panels that address topics of sexual identity (Andrew Marin will be on Wheaton’s campus Thursday, January 31); and Calvin College launched a “Sexuality Series” in 2006 hosts a variety of book clubs, peer mentorship groups, and counseling groups that discuss sexuality on a regular basis.
As great as campus-wide events and administration-facilitated discussions are, there’s no denying a majority of conversations about the topic of homosexuality occur in informal one-on-one or small group gatherings amongst students and professors who are open to talking candidly around campus. Therefore, it's important for conservative evangelicals to put agendas aside and...
According to Jose Vilanova, founder of OneWheaton, a pro-gay alumni organization composed of Wheaton College alumni, the solution to the “oppressive silence” felt on conservative Christian college campuses is for Christians worldwide to simply be aware, present, and willing to listen:
“In a perfect world, the people who are making the rules at Wheaton would just hear our stories; would just hear them; without a need for theological answer or rebuttal or a rebuff of any sort.”
My main takeaway from chatting with Jose in fall 2011, and with other gay alumni over the past year and a half, is that imposing your personal perspectives and beliefs on a same-sex attracted student will only push them farther away from you. They’ve probably already done their research on homosexuality and Christianity, and would appreciate listening ears being open to hearing their stories and testimonies, judgment-free, like Jesus would.
So, I think there's a glimmer of hope here, but what do YOU think? Is there hope for gay undergraduates on Christian college campuses? If not, what can be done to make the situation better?
To read more on the topic of homosexuality at Christian college campuses:
“Hope for the Gay Undergrad:” Christianity Today feature article
Gaysubtlety: blog about same-sex attraction in conservative Christian contexts written by two gay, celibate 2012 Wheaton College alumni
Recent news articles about pro-gay alumni organizations and movements on campuses nationwide:
TIME Magazine: "Wheaton's (Unofficial) Homecoming for Gay Evangelicals"
". . . As we discuss it, whether inside or outside the church, may we be ever mindful that we are Christ's ambassadors to a hurting world. May our words and actions always be 'full of grace' and 'seasoned with salt'" (Colossians 4:6).
-Dr. Bill Maier, as excerpted from Today's Christian Woman article "Loving the Neighbors”