Gay Students Coming Out at Christian Colleges

by Kilian Melloy

EDGE Staff Reporter

Tuesday April 19, 2011

Young gays and lesbians have been coming out more often, more definitively, and younger in recent years, as the culture they live in becomes increasingly more accepting. In a sign of the times, the unapologetic emergence of gay students is widespread even at evangelical Christian colleges and universities, according to an Apr. 18 New York Times article.

Christian institutions of higher learning tend to view homosexuality as a "sin" that individuals "choose" to enter into. The typical response to GLBT students has been either punitive or masked in an assumption of pathology, with gays and lesbians being told that they can be "cured" of homosexuality. But the newer generation of GLBT youth doesn't accept that they are "sick" or "sinners" because of their innate sexuality.

Moreover, the New York Times article said, young evangelicals in general are of a piece with contemporary culture, and do not simply reject gays as being "sinners" who need to be loved--but "cured" and / or prevented from gaining full civil equality before the law.

Here, as in other GLBT-related matters, a generation gap has come into view. The Times reported that while Christian youths may be more comfortable identifying as gay--or accepting their gay peers--the older set (specifically, college administrations and boards) are clinging to views on homosexuality that neither science nor society support as they once did.

That leaves students in a gray zone similar to what United States service members have endured since 1993. Overt declarations and subtle signs alike worry gay students who rely on scholarships that might be snatched away, or who might even be tossed out of their schools.

The article noted that one Christian school in Nashville, Tennessee, Belmont University, had changed its policies regarding gays and lesbians in the wake of a highly controversial incident in which a women's soccer coach, Lisa Howe, left her job after announcing to team members that she and her female partner were planning to become parents. The resignation shocked and angered the team, members of which told the press that Howe had been pressured into resigning.

One administrator "basically said we have the 'don't ask, don't tell' policy and when she told us about the pregnancy, it violated that," the team's captain, Sari Lin, told local newspaper the Tennessean in a Dec. 3, 2010 article.

"She was telling us what her sexual preference is. He said you can hide your sexuality, but you can't hide a baby. He pretty much told me that once the baby was born she was going to get fired anyway, so it's better to do it sooner than later," Lin added.

A major donor to the university then called for changes to its policies with regard to GLBTs. What's more, the donor, Michael Curb, is a Republican politician, country music artist, producer, and record company executive, and NASCAR owner.

Curb, who founded and heads Curb Records, contributed $10 million to Belmont University for an event center that is named in his honor. The Tennessean reported on April 14 that Curb was also instrumental in getting an anti-discrimination ordinance passed in Nashville.

But Curb may be more the exception than the rule when it comes to support from influential adults for GLBT Christian students. The youths might be comfortable among themselves when it comes to natural variations in human sexuality, but by and large the response from those in charge of Christian colleges has been to push back.

"It's like an unstoppable force meeting an immovable object," openly gay Baylor University student Adam R. Short told the Times. Short has made no secret of his sexual orientation--but he's also seen no progress in his efforts to gain recognition from the Baptist school's administration for a GLBT student organization, the article said. Baylor University is located in Waco, Texas.

A Baylor spokesperson framed the issue in language typical of the way older evangelicals and the institutions they oversee view gays.

"Baylor expects students not to participate in advocacy groups promoting an understanding of sexuality that is contrary to biblical teaching," the spokesperson, Lori Fogleman, told the Times.

That doesn't stop about 50 students from meeting every week--even without the school's formal recognition. The group is headed by Samantha A. Jones, the Times article said. Jones' girlfriend, Saralyn Salisbury, summarized the generational disparity in attitudes.

"The student body at large is ready for this," Salisbury said, "but not the administration and the Regents."

Whether school administrators are ready to hear them or not, GLBT students have found their voices. The article recounted how Harding University students and alumni went online with a site called HU Queer Press, where they posted accounts of their experiences. University officials responded by blocking the site, but--in a mirror of what happened when Islamic governments tried to shut down online expression--the attempt to censor gay speech only led to greater exposure of the issue. The Times noted that the online publication "went viral," especially among students at Christian schools.

"[W]e are not trying to control your thinking," Harding University president David B. Burks claimed to students, going on to say, "it was important for us to block the Web site because of what it says about Harding, who we are, and what we believe."

Such assertions may not be universally convincing, especially when Christian schools encourage gays and lesbians to undertake so-called "reparative therapy," which purports to "cure" homosexuality. Moreover, the Times article reported, university officials take note when gay students come out on social networking sites or discuss sexual issues online.

One countervailing organization is Soulforce, which sends out GLBT youths in an almost missionary-style capacity. The young GLBTs visit the campuses of Christian colleges and universities as part of an ongoing "Equality Ride." In some cases they are welcomed and permitted to present their views; in other cases, Soulforce riders have been arrested for trespassing if they as much as set foot on school property, as happened in 2006 when a number of equality riders were arrested at Jerry Falwell-founded Liberty University, in Lynchburg, VA.

The annual Soulforce outreach has an effect: the Times article referred to one lesbian, Amanda Lee Gennaro, who refused further "reparative therapy" and spoke up about her romantic feelings for another woman after the group stopped by her former school in Minneapolis, North Central University, a Pentecostal institution.

"I thought, wow, maybe God loves me even if I like women," Gennaro said of the group's impact on her.

The university offered a different message, suspending Gennaro and telling her to "reject homosexuality" if she wanted to resume her education there. Gennaro did neither, opting instead to finish her education elsewhere.

The education that young GLBTs receive at Christian schools is perhaps more comprehensive than educators might realize or intend. Among those life lessons: the importance of standing up for oneself--and the plain realization that gays are who they are, not out of choice, but by nature. Once that fact sinks in, doors fly open--the closet door among them.

One contributor to HU Queer Press noted that young gay Christians head to secondary school "hoping that college would turn us straight, and then once we realized that this wasn't happening, there was nothing you could do about it," the Times article said.

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Associate Arts Editor and Staff Contributor. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.