The Exciting Rise of Christian College LGBT Groups — And What They Mean for the Future

As we can all imagine (and as some of you know), evangelical Christian college campuses are not the friendliest to LGBTQ students. Attempts to create supportive communities have been sporadic and met with limited success. However, according to two Gordon College alumni writing for The Atlantic, Philip Francis and Mark Longhurst, there’s new hope in 2014: “[O]ver the past two weeks, an LGBT group at Gordon College [OneGordon] has made itself impossible to ignore.”

A little background: Gordon College is a small evangelical college near Boston that recently made the news when its president, D. Michael Lindsay, signed the petition that asked Obama to include religious exemption in the executive order prohibiting federal contractors from discriminating based on sexual orientation. The backlash brought lasting consequences.

What might have gone unnoticed at Gordon College 10 years ago received widespread coverage in national news outlets, such as The Boston Globe and The Washington Post. The public ramifications were also severe: The mayor of Salem, Massachusetts, cited concerns and canceled a longstanding building contract with Gordon. The New England agency responsible for accrediting private colleges and universities decided to review Gordon College in its upcoming meeting, even though the college had not been scheduled for review until 2022.

They’re right; ten years ago, the same move by Lindsay still wouldn’t have surprised anyone, but it also wouldn’t have drawn so many reactions. We’ve come a long way! Even more remarkable, strong dissenting opinions emerged from within the Gordon community that called for Lindsay to rescind the petition. What was once a unified institutional voice has splintered. Obviously, I’m not saying that Gordon College never had vocal LGBT students, alumni or faculty until very recently, but that OneGordon and similar alliances at Christian colleges around the United States now have momentum on their side. Now they’re louder than the colleges.

(Michelle Manchir/Tribune)

(Michelle Manchir/Tribune)

This is especially exciting because until recently, the Christian universities were pretty successful at deterring or ignoring LGBT-focused dissent. For example, like most Christian colleges, Gordon College has a policy on homosexuality that loves the sinner and hates the sin: “…there are clear prohibitions against same-gender sexual relations in the Scriptures. It is important to note that the Gordon statement of faith and conduct does not reference same-sex orientation — that is, the state of being a person who experiences same-sex attraction — but rather, specifically, homosexual acts.” It also reminds us that premarital heterosexual relations are also prohibited, and after all, “we are all sinners in need of grace, all called to redeemed humanity in Christ.” The same policy applies to their faculty: “Gordon College does not discriminate in hiring based on a person’s sexual orientation… provided they can affirm their support for the College’s Statement of Faith and agree to abide by the Statement on Life and Conduct.” Essentially, if you’re at Gordon College, it’s okay to be a gay, as long as you don’t actively gay. Shockingly, this stance doesn’t foster a truly safe environment for LGBT people, and many students and faculty responded by staying closeted, isolated and paranoid. Paul Miller, an ’08 alumnus who worked at Gordon for three years after his graduation, told the school newspaper that he “spent every day… thinking, ‘If they knew I was gay, I’d be fired.'” Miller went on to found OneGordon.

It’s about the same at other major Christian colleges. George Fox University, they of denying housing to a trans student fame, threatened to fire faculty members who publicly supported OneGeorgeFox, the LGBT student-alumni alliance, effectively silencing them. At Harding University, where out LGBT students were at the very least verbally abused, the successful publication of a queer zine was quickly blocked by the school networks. Last year at Baylor University (whose lifestyle policy forbids LGBT advocacy as well as LGBT behavior), the student senate voted to ask officials to remove “homosexual acts” from the code of misconduct. The university declined to publicly acknowledge the matter. Baylor also declined to recognize a Sexual Identity Forum that was formed in 2011.

The proposal to remove “homosexual acts” from Baylor’s sexual misconduct policy is also interesting in that its supporters weren’t necessarily supporters of LGBT students. They just thought it was redundant. “It is not saying that Baylor is OK with homosexuality… It is saying that homosexual acts are wrong but heterosexual acts committed outside of marriage are also wrong. It is making it more equal.” It’s the same logic as the tail end of Gordon’s homosexuality policy, as though retroactively declaring these sins equal would make LGBT students and faculty “more equal” in the eyes of the administration or in social settings. Semantic battles aside, the student senate was denied a dialogue with school officials because the student body president vetoed the proposal — because he was sure the university would reject it. He’s probably right; when colleges have bothered to respond to LGBT groups, their messages basically amounted to: Sorry you’re offended, but we’re not changing anything.

Even the LGBT groups in the news now were almost silenced before they gained much traction. When Miller tried to buy the domain name OneGordon.com, he discovered that it had been preemptively bought by an individual in Oregon who opposed LGBT rights. The domain names for other One[ChristianCollegeName] sites were also taken. Miller had to threaten legal action before the person in Oregon gave them up. This issue may seem small, but names—even domain names—are powerful tools in legitimizing movements, and these URL-reserving shenanigans were clearly intended to keep the groups from gaining more publicity and more supporters.

OneGordon is here now. So are OneWheaton, OneGeorgeFox, OneWestmont, Biola Queer Underground, BJUnity, Cedarville Out, Messiah College Inclusive Alumni, Goshen College, North Park University Queers & Allies, and Seattle Pacific University Haven. And unlike the students at Baylor, they’re demanding full equality for all LGBTQ students and faculty, along with providing support for those still on campus. Zach Alexander, a member of the OneGordon steering committee, outright rejects Gordon’s orientation vs behavior dichotomy: “[The dichotomy] does not hold water. Singling out LGBTs for special restrictions on their behavior is essentially the same as discriminating against them for their identity outright. And the Supreme Court agrees. In Christian Legal Society v. Martinez the majority found that exclusion based on homosexual ‘conduct’ was equivalent to exclusion based on ‘status.'” In case you were wondering, Ruth Bader Ginsburg wrote the majority opinion on that case, because she’s a goshdang badass.

I think it’s safe to say that current leaders of Christian colleges won’t change their position on homosexuality in the near future. But Francis and Longhurst point out that “most future evangelical pastors, theologians, and leaders will be graduates of these institutions.” In a shockingly short amount of years, groups like OneGordon have established their voices beyond Christian campuses, forming a cross-country network of support and advocacy. It’s an exciting development, and I’m excited to see what they accomplish next.


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Robin doesn't lean in, she spreads out. Her skills include talking up the movie Spice World to strangers. In any situation, she would prefer to get campy. She's a hedonist, lady dandy, and lazy academic. She has a twitter and a tumblr.

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32 Comments

  1. I grew up evangelical and was a part of evangelical groups in undergrad (which definitely contributed to the refusal to fully come out to myself until after graduation). The bravery of youth working within evangelical and other conservative traditions cannot be overstated – especially students on campuses such as these.

    *iz a big verklempt mess

  2. This is really a step forward! I was told at my LCMS college we couldn’t even start a GSA because board members would get upset? Or donors? Or big people writing checks? Idk. (We started a secret one anyway, of course.) So the fact that these colleges and universities even have lgbt groups seems outrageously awesome to me.

  3. Hey! I go to Gordon College. 1. The picture that appears with this headline is of a different Gordon. oops! 2. Shameless plug: For many people, it’s pretty difficult to be queer at a Christian college. Having our voices, stories, and existence be respected, or even simply acknowledged, has been really hard. One exciting step forward is this kickass blog that started at the end of last semester. There’s posts about a variety of topics related to heteronormativity, religious homophobia, being queer in a Christian setting, and…I absolutely would love it if anyone interested would read it, because there are several well written, interesting posts. http://studentinqueery.wordpress.com/

  4. Can I nitpick something? I don’t get the ‘it’s okay to be a gay, as long as you don’t actively gay’ bit. It’s probably because I’m looking at this from an asexual angle, and by this logic I only have one mode. But if I were mess around, I’d still be asexual, so yeah, I’m confused.

    • So it seems are a lot of folks when it comes to sexual orientation: confused I mean. It’s really quote simple. Far too many people think that you MUST be sexual active in order to be truly homosexual. They haven’t made the distinction between sexual ‘preference’ and ‘orientation.’ That’s way the whole matter of the Christian colleges even acknowledging that not everyone who identifies as gay is having sex, as so unusual for those involved.
      As for asexuality (which flies in the face of this whole ‘choosing to be gay’ concept that make it so easy to discredit sexual identity as anything other the a lifestyle choice), it’s something they’ve rarely even noticed or discussed. A few Christian theologians have only recently touched on the subject and the traditional standpoint is still evident. That’s the teleological philosophy that God intended the body for predesigned purposes that everyone is supposed to follow.
      Here’s a passage from the Wikipedia article on Religion and Sexual Orientation: (In the Christian magazine Vision, David Nantais, S.J. and Scott Opperman, S.J. wrote in 2002, “Question: What do you call a person who is asexual? Answer: Not a person. Asexual people do not exist. Sexuality is a gift from God and thus a fundamental part of our human identity. Those who repress their sexuality are not living as God created them to be: fully alive and well. As such, they’re most likely unhappy people with which to live.”)

    • I think what the rules are is that its ok to “be gay” ie be attracted to the same sex etc. but actually having “gay sex” is not allowed. but it sounds like straight sex isn’t allowed either? So basically I could lust after the hot girl in physics lecture and that would be fine, but once we had any sort of sex that would NOT be fine with the admin…
      But usually these types of rules are just so the administration can claim that they aren’t homophobic, even if their actual implementation of the policies would point to that.
      Did that clear anything up? I go to a jesuit (catholic) college where we don’t have any of these silly rules against sex so I don’t know if I’m qualified to explain the nuances of this

    • Ok so the way it was explained to me by a Jehova’s witness I know was “you can’t choose to be gay so that’s not your fault and can’t be a sin, but to have sex is a choice and that is a sin because the bible says gay sex is a sin”
      Many evangelical folks I know also expressed this sentiment.
      So the sin -which they hate- is the sex part and the sinner which they “love” is the gay person.
      As the article says they also ban pre marital sex between opposite sex people…i think this is because all sex unless for procreation is a sin.
      So no sex, no problem…allegedly.
      This explanation is all based on my experiences and information taught to me at an Anglican christian high school, or from Christians, of various denominations, that I know.
      Hope this clarifies the “as long as you don’t actively gay” stance.

    • Hey Bobbie,
      I think others have clarified the bit itself, but I just wanted say thanks for speaking up and sharing your valuable perspective. I’d meant it as a jokey riff on Gordon’s policy, and I didn’t mean to be exclusionary with it–thanks for pointing that out, and I’ll definitely be more careful in the future!

      • Aww, you are too sweet. Asexuality is a super tiny corner of the queer universe, and it’s really weird when you compare it to other orientations. I’m still figuring out how asexuality fits in with all this, and I don’t expect others to screen for it.

        Oh yeah: thank you!!!!

  5. Robin, Autostraddle editors – thanks so much for this article.

    LGBTQ and allied students and alumni from Christian* colleges have been fighting this battle for many years (~15 at Gordon), and nobody from the outside world has been paying attention or helping us.

    Now that LGBT rights are becoming more secure in the default world, it’s really, really, encouraging and exciting that queers and allies elsewhere are noticing that things are still really awful at colleges like the ones you mention.

    Please, help us. We need your support.

    Zach Alexander

    OneGordon co-founder

    *And please, if you’re non- or anti-Christian, don’t write us off as space aliens just for coming from Christian colleges. The student bodies at all the Christian schools above are diverse, and the alumni even more so, ranging from evangelicals to agnostics and atheists. And you might even be able to find common ground with the evangelicals if you’re open-minded.

  6. No mention of Houghton College… I didn’t go there, but my siblings, parents, aunts, uncles and grandmother and great-uncle all did. I step foot in that town and I’m recognized as being related to so-and-so or so-and-so. In fact, I think I’m related to some of the professors. Weird how I sort of crossed my fingers reading this, hoping for a mention, for a signal that things had started to melt there. Not attending Houghton was an act of self-preservation.

  7. Thank you for bringing attention to this. I have many friends who are fighting the good queer fight on campuses like this. I often find it difficult to be religious and queer not just from conservatives but also from others in the LGBT community. Bc religions have traditionally been hurtful to the queer community many in the LGBT community look at gay Christians (or other religions) as suspect or deluded. Its comforting to see more representation for the religious queers, whether they are Christian, Muslim, Jewish, Agnostic, Pagan, etc. Its also awesome to hear from different gay clergy like http://singlelesbianminister.com

    • Amen!

      Also, thank you so much for linking that blog- I had no idea it existed and it’s VERY relevant to my interests! Indeed this post and comments like yours have been really super relevant to my life at the moment, in that would-be-creepy-except-that-it’s-so-awesome way that AS posts sometimes spontaneously are.

      In short excellent post. 🙂

  8. I’m so glad to see this. It always makes me really sad when teh internetz and particularly Queer people respond to articles about Chirstian LGBT+ students at Christian Colleges with comments about how “they should have known better, duh.”

    I’m so glad people here have been supportive, because telling gay and trans* people that they should have known enough to give up their religion just reinforces the hurt being done to them by the most conservative elements of their own religions and sometimes even their own families. It’s horrible that I’ve had to see Queer people do that to their own too.

    No one should have to give up their religion just because of who they are. And we should never reinforce that just because we might have also been hurt by religion.

    • I agree – though I’ll that some queer folks at religious colleges (or who have recently graduated) *do* give up their religion, because their religion is so hostile to them. But they still have relationships with peers and professors, and probably non-transferable financial aid, etc., that make it difficult to leave their college even if they’ve left their religion. Which is even more reason to not cut them off from support and sympathy just because they’re at a religious college.

      • I mostly just meant that no one should *have* to give up their religion. I respect the people who feel like they should, or that it’s the best option for them. Religion is a deeply personal and communal thing, so I don’t have any right to say what other people should decide.

        The mention of financial and peer relationships is also a good one. I think a lot of people who don’t understand LGBT+ people in religious colleges forget the practical and financial side of things.

  9. Times are slowly changing on the GLBT + God side of things. I’m so glad to hear that student communities are rallying together to support the LGBT students among them. Well done you guys.

    I was involved in setting up a LGBT Christian youth group here in South Australia which is still running. It’s very tricky to toe the middle of two groups that are still often quite antagonistic towards each other; the group helps provide a safe space for young people to do so and be understood and accepted by others. I would think these student groups mentioned would similarly be an excellent support for LGBT Christians who otherwise feel very alone. It’s super great!

  10. I spent the past two years at Calvin College in Grand Rapids MI and fought hard to make a difference. Many of the students there are unwilling to loudly challenge the administration head on, opting instead to be part of and develop the queer (but faculty-supervised and thus sometimes mediocre due to censorship of such inappropriate topics as “dating”) groups and education initiatives on campus. Most of what we do – teaching people that being bisexual is not to be polyamorous, to be a gay man is not necessarily to be flaming, that gender and sex aren’t the same thing and that trans people exist – must be done with explicit respect to the policy of the college, which is the same as Gordon’s. But a lot is happening. There is a committee called the gender equity committee that officially took transgender issues into its care this past year (there were 7 of us on campus) and will be working on housing, names on ID cards, gender neutral bathrooms, and more.

    But that’s because it has nothing to do with sex. Once LGBT issues touch on THAT nasty stuff, it’s stfu and gtfo pretty immediately. We still have very stringent “open hours” that restrict access to residence halls based on assigned sex, and even in fighting for months to get my trans woman friend to be able to walk down the hall of girls dorms, they continually denied it because it might “make other residents uncomfortable.” The gender equity committee doesn’t want to touch the inflated number of sexual indecency infractions that gay people get for like, cuddling or kissing in their rooms because there’s a fear that if it were included in the sexual code it would officially discriminate instead of protect.

    Sex is firmly off-limits. And being asked to abstain is not seen as discriminatory, because basically everyone is (must be, for the glory of god) incredibly repressed.

    It may not be surprising that those of us who were both trans and queer were also sex-positive, many kinky and poly in various ways. Me…eventually I ended up in a judicial affairs suit threatening me with 18 months of probation for allegedly making “orgasmic noises” with a friend during nonsexual kink session… Again, many are like, Well, you should have known. But I’m like, look, you told me that I was to explore God’s world with integrity, and that my inquiry would be respected. Give me a noise violation, sure, but if you’re going to phobia anything associated with sex out of existence, write your courses around it, speak in either hushed or shaming tones about masturbation, and forcibly, fearfully, artificially segregate genders… It is time for me to leave.

    We managed to get the Vice President of student life to agree to me, another nonbinary student, a queer friend, and our trans woman friend living together as long as we treated visitation hours by “following the Spirit,” because there were no codes of conduct that had us remotely in mind, putting us under the direct, unapologetic, and inflated scrutiny of the college.

    Of the 7 trans students there last semester, 2 will remain in the fall, and a massive number of other queer students have left. The way queer identity intersects with faith (you’re overwhelmingly more likely to abandon it if you’re queer), sex, race, economics… It just isn’t worth it to be there anymore if you’re punished for being yourself in one way or another.

    • Calvin alum here. I can echo so much of what you are saying. I graduated several years ago and have since come out. I’m pleased to hear there is some progress, slow as it might be.

      I’ve been thinking a lot about the whole “hate the sin, love the sinner” philosophy recently. When I was in the closet and scared to acknowledge who I was, this idea was easier to grasp. But I was not living a full and happy life in the way anyone or anything would have intended.

      Banning homosexual activity is not just about the act, it’s about being able to accept yourself and have others accept you from you who are. I’m interested to see which direction Calvin and other Christian schools take in this area, and I hope it’s the loving, welcoming path.

  11. Thanks for the shout-out. BJUnity has been out and visible in Pride marches in New York, Atlanta, and of course South Carolina (Spartanburg and Columbia). Everyone is welcome to read more about our organization, including our personal stories at our website BJUnity.org

  12. I went to Seattle Pacific University for a time (didn’t graduate from there) and from what I understood, Haven seemed like a lot of straight people patting themselves on the back and that’s about it. I knew of only one out gay man and one lesbian the entire three years I was there. In a school of about 4,000. I don’t know, Christian universities just really don’t seem quite ready to handle fully out and proud gay people.

  13. Unfortunately we did not manage to change the policy at Baylor. However, there is an “officially unofficial” group called Sexual Identity Forum (SIF) that is allowed to meet on campus. There are some major drawbacks though to not being allowed to have a charter. SIF is not allowed to reserve a room on campus. Which means we have to meet in common areas that are often crowded and loud. If there is another group holding a meeting/gathering there then we are often drowned out and cannot hear each other speaking. It has still been an overall good experience with faculty at Baylor. Much of the faculty is very supportive and there have been many professors who have come to speak at the meeting.
    Check it out at https://www.facebook.com/SIFemBears

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