How LGBT Students Are Changing Christian Colleges

By Philip Francis and Mark Longhurst

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."

Miller knows firsthand what it’s like to be a closeted gay man at Gordon College. “I have a vivid memory of sitting in my dorm room during my junior year,” says Miller, “and searching the Internet for even one Gordon group dedicated to LGBT students, to no avail.” When Miller helped launch OneGordon a few years later, he didn't expect the group to have a huge impact—until he found out that Gordon’s senior cabinet members had met to address the group’s existence.

Then he tried to purchase the OneGordon.com domain name. “I discovered that it had been preemptively purchased,” says Miller, “along with other LGBT-friendly domain names for other Christian College alliances [such as OneWestmont.com and OneBiola.com] by an individual in Oregon with an anti-gay rights agenda.” According to Miller, the individual only relinquished ownership of the domain names after Miller and others threatened legal action.

Since founding OneGordon, Miller has been privately contacted by numerous supportive and support-seeking LGBT Gordon College students and alumni. In the midst of the recent scandal, one gay Gordon student told Miller how he’d felt during an unexpected encounter with President Lindsay: “He recounted working out on an ellipse machine in the Gordon College gym, getting a good sweat on, and bopping to Beyoncé on his headphones, when suddenly he realized that President Lindsay had mounted the ellipse machine next to him, and was starting a workout.” The two evangelicals—worlds apart in their beliefs about homosexuality—continued to exercise side by side.

Supporting LGBT causes can still have serious repercussions on college campuses. At George Fox University in Oregon, an LGBT group called OneGeorgeFox initially attracted support for many faculty members. Then, according to OneGeorgeFox founder Paul Southwick, the college held “an all faculty meeting, saying that if you support the OneGeorgeFox letter [calling for conversation around LGBT issues] you will be in open violation of your employment agreement.” Faculty supporters have been less vocal since that meeting.

Even so, says Southwick, “there used to be no conversation. Now people are talking about [LGBT issues] all the time, and the university can’t pretend that there aren’t gay people who attend the school.” OneGeorgeFox is currently advocating for a transgender student named Jayce, who filed a Title IX discrimination complaint against the university after it denied him housing. The Department of Education sided with George Fox’s, granting a religious exemption. But the ensuing controversy inspired new support for LGBT students. Southwick, who is Jayce’s lawyer, recalls a student government leader at George Fox who at first denied the campus LGBT group official recognition, but two years later became a public advocate for Jayce. (Earlier this week, George Fox announced a slight change to its policy, agreeing to house transgender students—if they've undergone gender reassignment surgery.)

On the whole, American evangelicals, who comprise roughly 28 percent of the population, are still the largest voting block opposing equal rights for LGBT people. Yet these campus alliances reveal that that evangelicals are not the united front they once were on this issue. In 2004, only about 1 in 10 evangelical Christians supported gay marriage. Just 10 years later, almost a quarter of evangelicals support gay marriage, including a near-majority of evangelicals under 35, according to the Public Religion Research Institute. If this trend continues, it is not an exaggeration to say that the most formidable obstruction to gay rights in the United States will dissolve.

This outcome, however, depends largely on the influence of evangelical Christian Colleges—the 120 member institutions of the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities, which are home, collectively, to over 400,000 students. Indeed, most future evangelical pastors, theologians, and leaders will be graduates of these institutions. Groups like OneGordon make it clear that young LGBT evangelicals are not only grappling with Christian faith and homosexuality; they’re also making their presence felt as never before and challenging their peers to lead the movement in definitively new directions.

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/education/archive/2014/07/how-lgbt-students-are-changing-christian-colleges/374861/