TOEING THE LINE: Christian Colleges Send Mixed Signals to LGBTQ+ Students

According to a 2014 study by the Pew Research Center, 49 percent of Christian millennials believe that LGBTQ+ identities should be accepted — an attitude that is also becoming more widespread among Christian institutions of higher education. In fact, 55 percent of Christian colleges and universities allow students to be open about their sexual orientation, according to Jonathan Coley, PhD, an assistant professor of sociology at Oklahoma State University and author of the book Gay on God’s Campus. 

Published in May 2018, his book investigates the recent wave of LGBTQ+ activism at Christian institutions of higher education and how they are responding to this movement. Coley, who is gay, attended a Christian college — Samford University in a suburb of Birmingham, Ala. — where he started the school’s first gay-straight alliance. He believes that today, LGBTQ+ student groups exist on most Christian campuses, including the most conservative ones. 

Brad Harper
Brad Harper

According to Brad Harper, PhD, a professor of theology and church history at Multnomah University in Portland, Ore., the increased openness of gay and transgender students at religious schools closely parallels the heightened visibility of LGBTQ+ individuals in society at large. “Every place is becoming safer to talk about being gay, lesbian, or trans, and Christian colleges are becoming that way too,” he says. However, he is quick to add that these schools are not monoliths. 

Coley’s research indicates that a “sizeable minority” of Christian institutions — 211 of them, to be exact — actually ban not only same-sex relationships and same-sex intercourse, but also any student who identifies as LGBTQ+. Yet most Catholic and mainline protestant schools embrace students of all sexual orientations, making them attractive places for LGBTQ+ youth for whom both faith and sexuality are central to their identities. Coley says his own experience attending Samford simultaneously opened up his spiritual life and improved his self-acceptance. 

“It may seem odd, but I think I was given an opportunity to think about questions [regarding] sexuality and faith in ways I wouldn’t have at a secular school, despite it being a more conservative environment,” he says, “[and so] I became more open about my sexual orientation within that context.” 

However, his peers did not always embrace him with open arms. “I was met with a lot of negative reactions from my fellow students,” Coley recalls.

Sam Koster, who identifies as bisexual and is currently a senior at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Mich., says she has experienced minimal rejection there because of her LGBTQ+ status. Like Coley, she wanted a campus where she could explore both her religious beliefs and her sexuality in a faith-based context. For other reasons, too, attending a Christian institution felt like a natural choice for Koster; most of her immediate family had attended the college, and her sister had several LGBTQ+ friends who went there. She came out in high school and says she knew Calvin would be a “safe” place to be out. 

Koster’s college experience reflects the common paradox of many of the more conservative Christian schools. While some communicate messages of acceptance toward students who are LGBTQ+, these institutions still maintain that being so is inherently sinful. Calvin College, for example, is affiliated with the Christian Reformed Church, which takes the official stance that individuals should not engage in homosexual behaviors and should conform to the gender they were born as. Despite the college’s connection to such beliefs, Koster found a home there with help from the Sexuality and Gender Awareness (SAGA) student club, which is sponsored by the parents of an LGBTQ+ man who committed suicide. 

Beyond SAGA, Koster says she’s mostly received support from her straight and cisgender peers but wishes that she could discuss her sexuality more openly. “No one’s giving a hate speech about queers,” she says, “but people kind of forget we exist.” Every year, Calvin hosts a sexuality series that covers a range of topics — from homosexuality to definitions of masculinity to beauty standards in the make-up industry; however, Koster sees the need for more focused, ongoing dialogue about LGBTQ+ issues. 

Until recently, such topics largely went unaddressed at Multnomah. Harper, who is the author of Space at the Table: Conversations Between an Evangelical Theologian and His Gay Son, credits his own “coming out” process — as the parent of a gay child — with opening up the dialogue about sexuality there. “I kind of became the safe person on campus,” he says. “So, semester after semester, LGBTQ+ students started coming out to me in the privacy of my office. I [was] invited to dorms to talk about these things with students, and in the last five years, our student services [office] has really begun to address this as an area of student concern.” 

Multnomah’s written statement on “Human Sexuality and Purity Understanding” helps establish a school culture where students feel free to discuss feelings of same-sex attraction and gender-identity confusion despite being unable to fully embrace their own sexual or gender identity; while the university’s statement emphasizes the importance of such self-reflection, it makes a distinction between homosexual feelings and behavior — the latter of which it considers a sin. The statement goes on to say that “sexual relationships are designed by God to be expressed solely within a marriage between a man and a woman” and that “sexual behavior contrary to Scriptural principles and Multnomah’s community standards will be addressed through a disciplinary process.”

The university also makes clear its belief that all people are meant to live according to the gender that God created them with at birth. According to Coley, written policies on gender identity at Christian institutions are typically few and far between. Being transgender is rarely explicitly banned in student handbooks, he notes, but only 10 percent of Christian colleges and universities include gender identity in their nondiscrimination policies. As a result, many transgender students at Christian institutions feel that their concerns are ignored. 

Coley notes that colleges and universities that do not have such policies are often the least welcoming to LGBTQ+ faculty and staff. For example, Goshen College in Indiana has accepted these students since the 1990s; however, the institution did not adopt an official nondiscrimination policy until 2015 because, as Coley says, it “wanted to retain the ability to discriminate against these faculty and staff members.” It was the LGBTQ+ student community at Goshen that ultimately prompted administrators to establish the policy after petitioning on behalf of faculty.

By and large, LGBTQ+ faculty and staff at Christian colleges and universities fly under the radar at their respective institutions — if they are even out at all. At Multnomah, Harper says faculty and staff openness about their sexual orientation or gender identity has been rare during his tenure. “I know of one male staff member and one male adjunct faculty member who were open about their LGBTQ+ identity while working here,” he says. “The staff member was single and the faculty member is married to a woman.” Neither of these individuals faced discrimination, he notes, because they adhered to university behavioral guidelines while employed there — specifically, they didn’t engage in a same-sex relationship. 

LGBTQ+ faculty and staff who are open about being in a same-sex relationship often face additional challenges, Coley adds. Such issues can include not receiving health insurance benefits for their spouses or having access to LGBTQ+ employee support groups. 

A Catalyst for Change

Whether they’re already accepting of LGBTQ+ individuals or not, changing interpretations and enforcement of Title IX may force Christian colleges and universities to adjust their official policies. Originally designed to address gender equity in collegiate sports, Title IX’s protections have been extended over the years to gay, lesbian, and bisexual individuals, and in 2014, the U.S. Department of Education expanded the law to include transgender students — specifically their right to use bathrooms and locker rooms that correspond with their gender identity. Yet Christian schools were able to obtain Title IX waivers, allowing them to circumvent the law — a policy that resulted in several protests. 

In March 2016, as part of the larger #GiveBackTitleIX campaign — a movement to reinstate protections for gay and transgender students led by Christian LGBTQ+ activists as well as LGBTQ+ students at Christian colleges — more than 80 civil rights groups pressured the NCAA to divest from religious schools that had obtained waivers. Their efforts were ultimately unsuccessful, and when President Donald Trump took office the next year, he withdrew the Obama administration’s guidance regarding LGBTQ+ students’ rights in public schools. To many, this action meant that for religious institutions, protecting the rights of these students was optional. 

Still, many administrators at Christian colleges are uneasy about the future. “It is certainly a possibility that a Democratic administration will come along and say we’re not going to offer these waivers of federal protections any longer,” says Coley, “and that would mean that Christian colleges and universities that receive federal grants or that enable students to receive Pell Grants, for example, could no longer discriminate against [LGBTQ+] students.” 

Concern regarding this potential turn of events is evidenced by discussions at a recent conference of the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. One well-attended session was titled “Is government funding replaceable?” Beyond this conference, some have expressed concern that if Christian schools wish to uphold their religious beliefs in regard to sexual orientation and gender identity, they may no longer be able to depend on federal funds.

Coley, however, is optimistic that religious institutions will come around to embracing outright acceptance of the LGBTQ+ community. “You never know which school is going to be the next to change its policies on sexual orientation and gender identity,” he says. “I would tell students who are already at some of the more conservative Christian colleges and universities that [people] like them are needed in those spaces and they deserve to be [there].” 

And many LGBTQ+ youth have expressed a desire to attend these institutions — and what’s more, want to have a voice on campus. Koster says that especially for these students, having a place where they can examine and work out some deeply personal questions is important. “Queer kids who are also Christian think way deeper about faith than [their] peers because we have to, because we don’t get a free pass to just take our parents’ faith,” she says. “We have to fight for it.”

One example of students using unifying tenets of Christianity to encourage institutions to be more accepting occurred at Belmont University in Nashville, Tenn. In 2010, students convinced administrators to add sexual orientation to its nondiscrimination policy after a lesbian soccer coach at the school was fired. They achieved their goal within a matter of days through protests, rallies, and appeals to influential donors. 

Going forward, Coley believes that more LGBTQ+ students will be able to successfully mobilize for institutional change. His research suggests that students are most successful in getting religious schools to adopt more inclusive attitudes toward the LGBTQ+ community when they “promote an understanding of Christianity and religion that is about love [and acceptance],” he says. On the other hand, “[if] they shy away from conversations about the intersection of Christianity, sexuality, and gender identity,” things are unlikely to change, he adds.

Ginger O’Donnell is a staff writer for INSIGHT Into Diversity. This article ran in our October 2018 issue.