How LGBT Students Are Changing Christian Colleges

On evangelical campuses, where codes of conduct prohibit "homosexual behavior," it's becoming more and more difficult to ignore the presence of gay and lesbian students. 

Over the past five years, an underground movement has been burgeoning on evangelical Christian campuses. Although many of these colleges explicitly ban “homosexual behavior,” they are now home to dozens of LGBT-friendly student groups. The umbrella organization Safety Net, founded in December 2011, encompasses groups from approximately 75 different evangelical Christian colleges. Some of these groups are tiny, and many operate in near-secret. But over the past two weeks, an LGBT group at Gordon College has made itself impossible to ignore.

When we, the authors, attended Gordon College over a decade ago, the vast majority of administrators, faculty, and students simply assumed that the Bible prohibited same-sex attraction. Nestled on Boston’s North Shore, this small outpost of evangelical Protestantism taught us that it was wrong to be gay—not just wrong, but explicitly condemned by both God and the college code of conduct. Sure, a fledgling group emerged here and there to foster dialogue about homosexuality and Christian faith, exploring the edges of accepted belief, but all of us—questioners and Bible-thumpers alike—signed an agreement, stating in no uncertain terms that we would not take part in homosexual activities of any kind.

At 10 a.m. on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays, the 1,500 or so of us students filed across the quad towards the brick A.J. Gordon chapel, which stands beacon-like at the campus’s head. We worshipped Jesus, studied the Bible, and sought to embody Gordon’s slogan: “Freedom within a framework of faith.” The college encouraged us to engage with social justice issues such as nationalism, war, poverty, and even corporate power. Yet Gordon’s framework of faith was never free for the LGBT among us. LGBT voices were so muffled at Gordon that the majority of students could spend four years at the institution and walk away with a diploma, never having been forced to question their basic assumption that homosexuality was a sin.

Not so for today’s Gordon students. This past Monday, President Obama signed the Non-Discrimination Executive Order for LGBT people, which will forbids any federal contractor from discriminating on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity. Although it’s unclear how this order will affect private colleges, Gordon’s President D. Michael Lindsay was one of a number of prominent evangelical leaders who sent a letter to President Obama, asking for an exemption. (Other signatories included Catholic Charities head Fr. Larry Snyder and megachurch pastor Rick Warren.) In other words, Lindsay asked Obama for permission to do what the College has always done: refrain from hiring people who engage in “homosexual behavior.”

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.

Even more tellingly, voices of protest also rang out within the Gordon College community. While Lindsay’s signature might have once been seen as a reflection of unity—a statement of evangelical Christianity’s opposition to homosexuality—the opinions that came forth from Gordon were diverse. Nearly 4,000 students, faculty, alumni, and supporters signed a petition urging President Lindsay to rescind his letter to the White House, and numerous instructors voiced disapproval through op-eds and blog posts.

Meanwhile, OneGordon—a student and alumni LGBT alliance founded in 2012—turned its website and Facebook page into gathering places for dialogue and clearinghouses for media reports and information related to the controversy. Paul Miller, a recent graduate who helped found OneGordon, describes the alliance as, “a handful of the many people making sure that President Lindsay is held accountable for his signature on the letter and its impact on Gordon’s reputation, academic community, and student body, which includes a number of LGBT students."

Presented by

Philip Francis is professor of religious studies at Manhattan College.

Mark Longhurst is an ordained minister of the United Church of Christin Williamstown, Massachusetts.

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