The LGBT Politics of Christian Colleges

At many evangelical universities, you can be gay—as long as you don’t “act” it.

Dennis M. Sabangan / epa / Corbis

In the past, many conservative Christian colleges condemned both same-sex attraction and same-sex intimacy. But now that gay marriage is legalized, and as the country undergoes broad cultural shifts, that’s changing. Some of these same schools are now attempting to separate sexual identity from sexual behavior in their policies and campus customs. However awkwardly, they’re trying to welcome gay students while preserving rules against same-sex “behavior.”

Depending on the theological and political climate of the school, colleges have different ways of dealing with this new reality. A few have fully opened their communities to LGBT students and faculty, lifting all restrictions against same-sex dating or same-sex marriage. This fall, two conservative Christian colleges, Eastern Mennonite University and Goshen College, added sexual orientation to their nondiscrimination policies. Ultimately, this move forced both of them to withdraw from the nation’s most prominent membership organization of evangelical universities.

At other colleges, specific policies regarding LGBT students are unclear. For example: Baylor, the nation’s largest Baptist university, quietly removed its policy forbidding “homosexual acts” last year. But the college’s spokesperson, Lori Fogleman, didn’t say whether this change means legally married gay students can now enroll at Baylor. “Our application for undergraduate enrollment does not ask the question of marital status,” she told me.

But regardless of the specificity of Baylor’s current policy, many LGBT students are uneasy. “As a bisexual woman in the Baylor community, I am very much in the closet to everybody that I am not good friends with here, just to minimize backlash,” said a Baylor student named Ariel, who requested that her last name not be used.

And at many colleges, students can still be kicked out for being in a gay relationship. In 2013, Danielle Powell was expelled from Grace University in Nebraska when the school discovered she had been in a romantic relationship with a woman. Other schools express disapproval in more creative ways. For example, last year, the writer Eliel Cruz was allegedly told by administrators that he couldn’t sell cupcakes to raise money for homeless LGBT youth because such “perceived advocacy” of LGBT people would conflict with the mission of Andrews University in Michigan.

Even though some conservative schools are trying to find a compromise between their convictions and prevailing cultural norms, this posture often effectively creates two sets of rules: one for gay students, and one for straight students. For example, at College of the Ozarks, ranked by U.S. News as the No. 4 regional college in the Midwest, the student handbook explicitly forbids “touching, caressing, and other physical conduct of a sexual nature with a person of the same sex.” Yet heterosexual students at the same school are allowed to date and show affection as long as they abstain from sex.

Likewise, at Messiah College, ranked by U.S. News as the No. 5 regional college in the North, heterosexual couples are expected to refrain from sexual intimacy, but they can openly date. Meanwhile, gay students have to follow different rules. According to the handbook, “students who experience same sex attraction or identify as gay or lesbian are expected to refrain from ‘same sex sexual expression’ as it is embodied in culturally contextual practices (e.g., identifying as a couple or exhibiting expressions of physical intimacy).”

What happens if students break a rule against same-sex dating? At Messiah, situations are addressed “on a case-by-case manner that respects the dignity, privacy, and welfare of the person, in conjunction with the Christian identity and commitments of the college,” said Carla E. Gross, a spokesperson for the school. “This process is consistent for all behavioral standards and expectations established by the College—not just sexual behavior.”

Gross noted that, as a Christian college, “Messiah’s institutional approach on human sexuality is based on the authority of scripture as we understand it and is rooted in the traditional teaching long held by the Christian Church—including Messiah’s founding denomination, the Brethren in Christ.” She emphasized that the school’s community standards are related to same-sex behavior, not orientation.

Not all students agree with these rules. Administrators “maintain that their policies are against behavior, not orientation, but they restrict forms of behavior to the point that there is no way to truly express orientation,” said Dan Heiland, a bisexual student at Messiah. “The joke among my friends is that you can be gay at Messiah, just so long as you don’t act gay, or say gay things, or do anything to show you’re gay.”

The question of whether an LGBT Christian must remain celibate has led to an intense debate over the interpretation of scripture. And while a majority of evangelicals remain opposed to gay marriage, some of their leaders, including the evangelical ethicist David Gushee, have offered a biblical case for gay marriage and full acceptance of LGBT people within the church. Kenda Creasy Dean, a professor of youth, church, and culture at Princeton Theological Seminary, believes more inclusive mentalities towards the expression of LGBT behaviors will spread, in part because of the progressive views of many young evangelicals. As a December Pew Research study noted, “Roughly half (51%) of evangelical Protestants in the Millennial generation (born between 1981 and 1996) say homosexuality should be accepted by society.” “The same-sex couples at Christian colleges don’t tend to think of themselves as practicing ‘alternative’ lifestyles,” she said. “They think of themselves as card-carrying, church-going, doctrinally-formed evangelical Christians. They see themselves as living into the God-given freedom that American evangelicalism explicitly condones.”

Religious schools with special rules governing LGBT students’ behavior are back under scrutiny in part because of a Human Rights Campaign report published in December. The report drew attention to 56 colleges and universities seeking exemptions from federal laws that prohibit discrimination on the basis of sexual identity. These same religious schools also receive considerable federal funding in the form of grants and student loans.

“Religious liberty is a bedrock principle of our nation; however, faith should never be used as a guise for discrimination,” said Stephen Peters, a spokesperson for the Human Rights Campaign. “We have been alarmed by the growing trend of schools quietly seeking the right to discriminate against LGBT students, and not disclosing that information publicly. That’s why we urged the Department of Education to take action and help ensure no student unknowingly enrolls in a school that intends to discriminate against them.”

Many of the colleges seeking exemptions from federal laws prohibiting discrimination on the basis of sexual identity are members of the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities, an association of 179 institutions that enroll more than 450,000 students every year, employ 30,000 faculty members, and have 1.8 million alumni.

“As is the nature of communities, an essential component is the shared values and expectations of its members,” said David Toney, a legislative assistant for the CCCU, in an emailed statement. “Students at Christian colleges freely choose to attend and willingly agree to the community covenants which are based on the theological underpinnings of the institution and its understanding of what is best for human flourishing.” Toney said that an institution's policies reflect its view of God and the life to which a Christian is called. “Parsing only one aspect of a policy removes it from the context of the institutions’ broader theological beliefs necessary for understanding the reason for the policy or principle,” he added.

But many LGBT students believe this posture ignores the struggle inherent in being true to one’s sexuality in a conservative Christian environment. Indeed, the balancing act of being openly gay, remaining celibate, and meeting the expectations of a conservative religious community can sometimes be too much to bear, even at colleges that want to show an openness on the issue. After being courted by Wheaton College in Illinois, the openly gay blogger Julie Rodgers accepted the position of “ministry associate for spiritual care” for the LGBT population on campus in 2014.* Subsequently, she was inundated with students seeking help, comfort, and understanding. Despite her successful ministry at Wheaton, she resigned in 2015, and wrote an article about her disappointing experience.

The president of Wheaton “said he’d heard nothing but positive things about my ministry with students on campus, but they hadn’t anticipated so much criticism from alumni and donors,” Rodgers wrote.

Justin Lee, executive director of the Gay Christian Network, speaks to Christian college campuses in support of LGBT students, and often sees a disconnect between how the administration views LGBT issues and how students view them. “Romance and self-identity get lumped in with sex, and just tossed in the same pile,” he told me. “And it leaves a lot of students wondering: Even if I don’t have sex, am I going to get expelled or disciplined in some way if I come out, or if I have a relationship—even if it’s a non-sexual relationship?”

Lee told me, when he asks administrators that question, they typically say, “No, of course we wouldn’t expel a student for this. We would never do that.”

“But it’s not that clear to the students,” Lee said. “The students live in fear.”

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* This article originally misstated the name of Wheaton College. We regret the error.